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Contest Essay

Are Property Rights Human Rights?


     
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Junior Faculty Winner. First Prize ($10,000)

Since the days of Aristotle, at least, the classic case for private property rights has focused on the expected neglect of what is held in common: “What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care. People pay more attention to what is their own: they care less for what is common,” and this goes for material possessions as much as personal relations. Better to be someone’s cousin, Aristotle concluded, than to be his son where children are held in common in the manner of Plato’s Republic.[1] Though Aristotle misread Plato on a cardinal point,[2] the conclusion that private property is immeasurably more congenial to human industry and the creation of wealth is hard to escape, as is the contention, most famously advanced by Locke, that the fruits of human effort in a system safeguarding the individual’s life, liberty, and property outweigh what nature alone bestows on us by a factor of a hundred to one, or a thousand to one, or many times more than even that.[3] Hence it is by our inventions and our arts, sustained by the “great foundation of property” that man has in himself, that we are best able by far to “improve the conveniences of life” and to provide ourselves with all that we require for our support and comfort.[4] All the stupendous advances that we have thus been able to make, not just in how easily and commodiously we may clothe or house ourselves, how well we eat, how long we live, or how we are able to ward off and cure diseases with a confidence that our ancestors would have found nothing short of miraculous; but also the many years of schooling we are routinely able to make available to young and old alike; the improved safety of what surrounds us, from electrical appliances to cars and airplanes; the ease with which we move about and travel; the cultural amenities that surround us on all sides, be they cheap books or museums or opera houses supported out of abundant wealth; all this must be attributed in large part to the power of private property, and inasmuch as we are thus enabled to lead much fuller, perhaps even more properly human lives, it would not be far-fetched to include private property among the human rights, or even to declare it in some sense their foundation.

Yet this essay would take the argument another step further, showing how it is by the liberty and opportunity of doing things, for which private property is indispensable, that we are able to find our place in the world; to learn and grow as human beings; and to contribute to, even while benefiting from, the vast body of knowledge collected by what Hayek calls the extended order. The idea of human rights aims, at bottom, to protect those activities and characteristics that are most distinctively human, that give our lives their particular dignity; and it is through the initiative and exploration that private property fosters that we are most reliably and regularly able to express that quality even in actions that are seemingly mundane. The pursuit of happiness that makes our lives human certainly goes beyond that which property allows us to do; but it requires property as its indispensable foundation, and those who disdain to own anything themselves have ever relied on the voluntary support, or the opportunities for plunder, provided by those who have made their belongings their care.

I. Property and the Self

The mischief done by Marxists in Hegel’s name has tended to distract from the importance Hegel attached to private property rights, and from his reasons—highly relevant to our purposes—for doing so. As Shlomo Avineri puts it, “Property is not only instrumental..., it is a basic requisite for man in his struggle for recognition and realization in the objective world... Property is thus ‘the embodiment of personality,’ and the existence of private property becomes a sine qua non in Hegel’s social philosophy.”[5] Without property, we could develop no more as adults than children could without play and toys. As Tocqueville wrote, “The principle that the child derives from the possession of his toys is taught to the man by the objects that he may call his own.”[6]

According to Hegel, it is claims around private property that provide the paradigmatic mechanism by which individuals integrate themselves into the “chain of social connections”: we become objects to ourselves first of all in what we possess, and it is through our property that we develop our wills and relate to others. A person thus acquires ownership of his life and his body as he learns self-consciously to will this possession by making property claims on external objects. Once this has been accomplished, and as long a person is alive, his body stands as the physical repository of his freedom, and hence, “though as far as my will is concerned, I can be free even in chains, as far as others are concerned, I am in my body, and if another does violence to my body, he does violence to me.” Attainments, eruditions, talents and so forth, being mediated through the mind and externally embodied, come similarly to be owned by free persons.[7]

Because a person’s will becomes objective in property, it necessarily acquires a private character, and ownership in common can never be more than an “inherently dissoluble partnership in which the retention of my share is explicitly a matter of my arbitrary preference.” Private property thus appearing, to Hegel, as “the first embodiment of freedom” and as supremely rational, it must be privileged even at the expense of other rights. While specific characteristics of private property may be regulated, its limits can be rationally defined only in the “highest sphere of right”; indeed, private possession, according to Hegel, “came before the law,” and a state is for Hegel precisely a union for the defense of property.[8] This is not to say, of course, that the Hegelian state is merely an instrument for the preservation of property or that Hegel intended to emphasize the object to be defended rather than the union of wills whereby such a defense becomes possible.[9] Though the state stands above civil society, however, and must surely be permitted to violate property rights where they clash with vital higher interests, Hegel is very careful to caution against such violations.

Personality, moreover, as the basis of all rights, can only be developed through self-conscious recognition of social relations, and property is an essential mechanism for such recognition. Self-consciousness requires not only the distinction of the self from what is external to it, but also an awareness of other selves, and both are achieved through making property claims that establish an individual in a network of social relations. Property claims are thus moral gestures that demonstrate mutual recognition of personhood, allowing property holders to recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another:

A person, by distinguishing himself from himself, relates himself to another person, and it is only as owners that these two persons really exist for each other. Their implicit identity is realized through the transference of property from one to the other in conformity with a common will and without detriment to the rights of either.[10]

Hegel draws this argument together in a principled rejection of all redistributive egalitarianism: “Everyone must have property. Hence, if you wish to talk of equality, it is this equality that you must have in view.” What and how much anyone possesses, on the other hand, “is a matter of indifference so far as rights are concerned.”[11] It is only the state’s relationship to property as such, in other words, that requires determination by the public authority,[12] and Hegel denounced the demand for an equal division of resources as “an empty and superficial intellectualism.” To oppose to the right of property a demand for material equality is for Hegel “a folly of the understanding” even if differences in possessions, capital and skill are “conspicuous in every direction and on every level, and contain arbitrariness and accident.” Indeed Hegel warns against the danger of “all kinds of intellectual mediocrity stumbling on equality” and against “those fanatics whose deluded devotion to the abstract idea of universal equality – the freedom of the void – can only lead to a fury of destruction aimed at all order.”[13]

II. Property, Knowledge, and Progress

“Civilization begins,” Hayek writes in his Constitution of Liberty, “when the individual in pursuit of his ends can make use of more knowledge than he has himself acquired and when he can transcend the boundaries of his ignorance by profiting from knowledge that he does not himself possess.”[14] Perhaps no activity more than participation, on the basis of private property rights, in what Hayek calls “the extended order of human cooperation,” allows the individual to draw on a reservoir of knowledge so staggering in its magnitude, yet collected nowhere as an integrated whole—existing only, that is, as the dispersed beliefs and values of myriad thinking and acting individuals whose decisions are connected and invisibly coordinated through the system of exchange. It is by the power of this diffuse knowledge, guiding us in ways of which we generally remain unaware, that human civilization has been able to expand and progress so rapidly, and upon the preservation of private property, which plays so central a role within the extended order, thus depends the sustenance and advance, material as well as intellectual, of the individual, the group, and indeed the species as a whole as it exists today.[15]

As Adam Smith easily showed more than two centuries ago, the interconnected system of markets by which we exchange goods and services makes for an enormously complex way of providing for our needs. Without the coordinated efforts of thousands and millions, then as now, “the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to what we very falsely imagine, the easy and simple manner in which he is currently accommodated.”[16] Conceiving of the extended order as no more than a world-wide conduit for the exchange of goods and services, then, its extraordinary complexity would be evident enough; but in fact, a full reckoning of its workings must include, too, all the mental ramifications of the exchanges we engage in: the deliberation, choice, and discovery involved, as well as all the information, most of it untraceable and assimilated unconsciously, to which we become privy in the process. So unfathomable is the range and reach of the extended order that it may well be the most complex structure in the universe, as Hayek contended.[17] Not only does every single exchange make ripples that will be felt, however faintly, at the furthest reaches of the system, but even what appears as a distinct good to be traded is really a complicated compound of all that has contributed to its conception and creation, in a context where the relative values of components and products alike are constantly fluctuating and being rebalanced in the minutest ways. Thus the extended order allows us to allocate resources, without any central direction, both in space and time, with an almost miraculous precision, reflecting in principle every change of preference expressed anywhere within its vast parameters.

What we are dealing with, in sum, is only superficially a process of physical production and exchange; at bottom, it is a mechanism for gathering and disseminating a wealth of ideas, information, and knowledge so stupendously extensive that any image we might use can be little more than a crude mental crutch. To help us form some conception of its dynamics, however approximate, we might think of the extended order as a gigantic data-collection device, an apparatus of registration, or a highly evolved method of communication by which we are able to transmit and deploy an entire universe of scattered bits of data that are assembled and reassembled without cease throughout the system, keeping it in balance by continuous mutual adjustments.[18] Market transactions thus resemble “discovery procedures”—drawing on prices and profits as signals and “tools for searching”—that allow market-participants to expand their limited range of vision.[19] Exactly how involvement in the extended order will affect the development of any one individual’s capacities could never be predicted, or even reliably analyzed in any detail; but that the effect must be very considerable is surely beyond doubt.

To think that we could ever master this complexity by a deliberate act of understanding and control such as that to which all centralized, rationalizing political authorities aspire—be they ever so expansive and powerful—betrays a grave misunderstanding and colossal presumption, as Hayek puts it.[20] Indeed, reckoning with the full measure of our ignorance, we will need to confront the paradox that with every step we advance, as creatures instinctively craving rational control, we will be left more uncertain and likely discomfited, left ever less cognizant of the myriad circumstances on which our actions, the very workings of civilization, so crucially depend for their success. What we can say with the confidence of experience, meanwhile, is that the extended order will thrive on the recognition of a protected domain, a personal sphere of rights “fenced off,” as Locke put it in the Second Treatise, from arbitrary interference and infringement by other persons, private or public.[21] For as much damage as has been done through the confusion of freedom with power, a properly understood liberty brooks no separation from the freedom to do things; freedom in the intellectual sphere, though it may appear as the crowning part of the edifice, depends in practice on solid walls and foundations made of much more “prosaic” stuff.[22]

It is not surprising that the claims of private property should be liable to especially bitter opprobrium when great fortunes are first accumulated by grasping men, then squandered by profligate and idle heirs. Lost in the distaste and indignation that such scenarios tend to provoke, however, are a number of intriguing subtleties that might help to reconcile us to private property even where it is bound to be least popular. We might note, first of all, that those who object so strongly to inherited advantages on grounds of principle might have cause to welcome spendthrift heirs, for even the tax-collectors’ most determined efforts at confiscation have rarely been as successful at quickly dissipating fortunes as have the doings of those who combine a taste for high living with a disdain for more productive cares and labors. Or else one might marvel at how narrow and crudely materialist a note the enemies of inherited wealth will strike in the service of their cause, as if the inheritance of equivalent advantages in other realms—exceptionally good looks, or rare and remarkable talents, or striking intelligence—could not bestow advantages just as considerable, to say nothing of the unobtrusive but all-important blessings transmitted by a happy home, for which family fortunes have not always laid the most reliable foundations. Even if one remained unappeased so far, one ought at least to consider that among the countless ways in which parents might seek to pass on advantages to their kin, the bequest of money is likely, as Hayek and Friedman have argued persuasively, to be far cheaper than alternative means of providing prospective power or influence. We might also show some solicitude for the right to bequeath even where we care little about any right to inherit.[23]

What is more, even the vanities and frivolities that do so little to endear wastrels to our sympathies may have important uses and benefits. For, implausibly apologetic as it may sound at first, a small class accustomed to wealth may be well-placed, by dint of its congenital condition, as it were, to act as sponsors of causes unsuited for more collective support owing to their experimental and innovative nature. Many such experiments and innovations will fail, to be sure; but the few that succeed may point the way for a generation, and it is hard to see how any process of collective deliberation, governed as it has to be by already established consensuses, could offer a reliable alternative to the individual enthusiast with money to spare. Whether in the arts or in education, in the realm of intellectual iconoclasm or the refinements of eccentricity, sponsorship by the state would require precisely the kind of mass agreement that such experimental modes preclude almost by definition. Wherever new ideas or ways of doing things are still truly fighting for recognition, the functions that the rich will take upon themselves quite naturally could be replicated only with great difficulty, and the vehement opponents of inheritance on the left might consider how ironic it is that it should fall to their most bitter opponents to defend the inherited means of Engels, for instance, without whose support much of the Marxian oeuvre would not have seen the light of day. It might be enough, under the conditions of a free society, to engage a patron’s instinct for the gain eventually to be reaped from the investment in a renegade cause; but there would be much to deplore if the genuine enthusiast or the generous spirit (not entirely the stuff of myth, let us hope) whose covetousness has been assuaged by a life of abundance, were everywhere to be displaced by the self-made man and his unwavering instinct for lucre, however necessary the latter may also be for a thriving society.

But there is yet another sense in which the vagaries of private property, so unappealing when contemplated from one angle only, reveal unexpected attractions from another. For as Hayek and Mises argue with great force, “Every advance first comes into being as the luxury of a few rich people, only to become, after a time, the indispensable necessity taken for granted by everyone.”[24] New modes of doing things, in other words, however promising they may be, are likely to be expensive simply on account of their novelty, and there is no way of making them generally accessible from the outset.[25] In a free society, the wealthy few will be the ones who get the first opportunity, by pursuing whatever catches their fancy, to experiment with such new goods and lifestyles as cannot be made more widely available right away. Certainly, we could find other ways of identifying those who might get to try out innovations, such as running a lottery, for example,[26] or more likely and far less appealing, through the deliberate privileging, in the most proper sense of the word, of a well-connected few by political fiat—just the thing that liberal societies ought to avoid at almost all cost. Whatever the alternative mechanism, even the most egalitarian societies could only avoid giving to a few what cannot yet be made available to all by gravely impeding the pace of progress. Unlike the winners of our imagined lottery, or the apparatchiks identified for special privileges, moreover, the wealthy bring along not only their interests, but also their purses, and their seemingly extravagant expenditures (though in no way motivated by such considerations) will inadvertently serve to defray the experimental investments necessary before the most promising products can be brought to the mass market. Indeed, the more outrageous the price put on an innovative item, the larger a “free gift” do the rich make of all the knowledge and experience whose acquisition is in effect funded by their lavish and capricious spending. What sets apart a system driven by private property, then, is not the fact that some goods must necessarily be reserved to the few before they can be made available to the many, but rather the way in which the spending of the rich is quickly translated into advances for everyone else. For once the initial expenses of development have been met and a product has proved itself, a market economy will tend to spread it very rapidly. In the end, the rich are not even likely to be the system’s primary beneficiaries, as Schumpeter reminds us:

It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabrics, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for a steadily decreasing amount of effort.[27]

As rising standards of living deprive the rich of the exclusive enjoyment of certain goods and services, they will simply move on to others, always staying a step ahead;[28] but even leaving aside the fact that the composition of the rich will change, the most dramatic changes will be reserved for the masses who, before long and as it were in “in echelon fashion,”[29] will get to enjoy advantages of which, to use Mises’ evocative image, the very pharaohs could not have dreamt.[30]

The luxury of working to death a few hundred thousand slaves to complete a pyramid is a thing of the past, thank God; but what would the crowned heads of the past not have given, amidst all their glittering vanities and treasures, for our sanitary advances and our dentistry, our jets and our helicopters, our big-screen television sets and little blue pills? It may be open to quibbling whether human rights in the strictest sense are at issue when we contemplate how coveted luxuries of the past—running hot water, flushing toilets, refrigerators and automobiles, mobile phones and laptop computers—have become stock items that can be taken for granted in ever-wider swaths of the world. We may even wonder whether the resulting lifestyle is really preferable, by this or that matrix, to ways of life prevailing in other, less affluent periods. What we surely cannot doubt, however, is the staggering increase in knowledge and control over our environment—the very definition of civilizational progress, whether we welcome it or not—that private property within the extended order has made possible for us, nor the “fabulous” expansion in what Ortega y Gasset called “the vital possibilities” and “the horizon of each individual existence” today.[31] If the question of human rights is to be more than a semantic exercise, we can hardly avoid giving a distinguished place to the contributions of private property.

III. Property and the World

Hayek stresses how momentous an event in the evolution of the species was reached when the first humans stepped beyond the confines of their respective small bands to offer something in exchange for reciprocal benefit, rather than communal purposes; for the idea that something might legitimately be withheld from the group marked a drastic departure from the instinctive principles that had governed the life of the species for hundreds of thousands of years.[32] Yet from such humble beginnings sprang the extended order with its multiplication of connections across boundaries and borders, holding out the promise of peaceful, voluntary relations rather than the bloodshed and rapine with which the annals of history assault us on all sides.[33] Thus we may point to archaeological evidence dating back some 30,000 years for evidence that trade is by far the oldest form of human contact among remote groups, and we may well credit the efforts at codifying mercantile principles of exchange and contract with prompting the development of the first rudiments of international law even thousands of years ago.[34] Indeed the Hellenic alphabet that was later adapted into our own Latin script emerged from the Greeks’ mercantile interactions with the Phoenicians. We may well agree with Hayek, then, that the extended order has probably done as much as any other human institution, and possibly more, to curb man’s instinctive hostility and aggression towards strangers, and to make associates of potential enemies.[35]

The right of private property, consistently applied, requires that Adam Smith’s famous “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another”[36] be allowed to operate freely not just within, but also across national borders, and it has often been pointed out that such trading can hardly fail to make some contribution to the enlargement of our ideas and the promotion of peace—the most fundamental human right of all. Thus Montesquieu pronounced in his Spirit of the Laws, “Commerce cures destructive prejudices, and it is an almost general rule that everywhere there are gentle mores, there is commerce, and that everywhere there is commerce, there are gentle mores... The natural effect of commerce is to lead to peace.”[37] Tocqueville agreed that the advance of commerce and democracy would soften hearts, stimulate habits of peace, and dampen military ardor among the peoples of the future:[38] “Commerce is naturally adverse to all the violent passions; it loves to temporize, takes delight in compromise, and studiously avoids irritation. It is patient, insinuating, flexible, and never has recourse to extreme measures until obliged by the most absolute necessity.”[39] Tocqueville anticipated that the trading peoples of the world would gradually come to “resemble each other in their equal dread of war and their common love of peace” and that a “species of general apathy and goodwill” would “make the sword drop from their grasp” almost in spite of themselves. The expansion of commerce and cooperation would not only lead tastes to become more similar, but the interests of different peoples would become “so mixed and entangled with one another that no nation [could any longer] inflict evils on another nation without those evils falling back upon itself.” In consequence, the nations would increasingly “regard war as a calamity almost as severe to the conqueror as to the conquered” and it would therefore become more and more difficult to draw them into hostilities.[40] Indeed one might even wonder, with Ortega y Gasset, whether war ever truly has prevailed in human affairs: “History has brought into the foreground the conflicts and, in general, the politics, always the last soil on which the seed of unity springs up; but whilst the fighting was going on in one field, on a hundred others there was trading with the enemy, an exchange of ideas and forms and articles of faith. One might say that the clash of fighting was only a curtain behind which the peace was busily at work, interweaving the lives of the hostile nations.”[41]

In more subtle ways, too, private property and the unhampered exchange of goods and services throughout the extended order will contribute to our fuller development as human beings. Where the purchase of imports is left up to the individual, the very process of identifying what one might want to try out must have some impact on mental development, individual and collective; for the eating of an unfamiliar food, the wearing of a strange piece of clothing, the use of a foreign piece of furniture, or the listening to an exotic piece of music, all these are in fact encounters with a different body of human knowledge; and where that knowledge is adapted to the importing culture (so as to stimulate demand) there is even a feed-back loop whereby the exporting culture is affected in its turn. Most of these interactions will be entirely unconscious, very minute, and impossible to trace; but taken together, they create a vast web of very real relations and cognitive connections, however faint their echoes. Thus even in Herodotus’ day, for example, the Greeks were receiving tin and amber “from what one might call the ends of the earth,” parts whose very existence Herodotus had been unable to confirm, despite his best efforts, otherwise than by the evidence of trade.[42] What we see at the material level, in other words, is only the surface of an enormously complicated exchange of implicit ideas, and although we could never hope to trace, let alone predict its dynamics, we can say one thing with reasonable assurance: that it will conduce to our development as human beings. Indeed, bringing foreign things home by purchase from abroad may prove a more effective mechanism of exchange than even travel, whose blessings inspire such secular devotion in our age; for it is in our daily lives that habits are most reliably formed and that new ways of doing things will alter—one imperceptible change at a time—our patterns of acting and thinking alike.

IV. Conclusion

The case for private property rights was once taken to be so conclusive that David Hume could confidently declare it beyond dispute: “No one can doubt that the convention for the distinction of property, and for the stability of possession, is of all circumstances the most necessary to the establishment of human society, and that after the agreement for the fixing and observing of this rule, there remains little or nothing to be done towards settling a perfect harmony and concord.”[43] Granted, Hume believed that private property, though the most central of moral institution, was founded upon human convention, rather than simply being written in the book of nature; yet such moral intuitions as those that give rise to private property were for him “so rooted in our constitution and temper, that without entirely confounding the human mind by disease or madness, ‘tis impossible to extirpate and destroy them.”[44] Though a human contrivance, in other words, the invention of private property is so “obvious and absolutely necessary” and so “inseparable from the species” that “it may as properly be said to be natural as any thing that proceeds immediately from original principles, without of the intervention of thought or reflection.”[45]

Surveying the evolution of the human species, it would be hard to deny that the hold of private property, though precarious enough in its confrontations with power, has ever been more reliable than that of other human rights. If one could get the impression that property has enjoyed fewer legal protections and intellectual champions, this is in large part owing to the inherent resilience of a principle whose lasting suppression, unlike that of other rights, has never yet succeeded in the long run. Dangerous ideas about the rights of property as mere ploys of clever rich usurpers seducing their more gullible fellows have no doubt existed since the dawn of the civilization, long before they received their definite expression in Rousseau’s Second Discourse or the baneful writings of Karl Marx.[46] But the waves of resentment crashing upon the shores of private property, though they may wreak havoc aplenty and leave the land submerged for a time, have always receded again before long.[47] Where a free society operates as it should, opening opportunities and denying privileges, the material benefits of private property, masking even more fundamental intangible ones, have always and will always prevail against opposition in the end. In the meantime, it is the experience of assured ownership that will prove the best antidote to setbacks as the realm of human rights spreads and strengthens its dominion. What Tocqueville concluded almost two hundred years ago rings just as true today:

There are no great nations—it may almost be added, there would be no society—without respect for right... I am persuaded that the only means we possess at the present time of inculcating the idea of right and of rendering it, as it were, palpable to the senses is to endow all with the peaceful exercise of certain rights... In America, the most democratic of nations, those complaints against property in general, which are so frequent in Europe, are never heard, because in America there are no paupers. As everyone has property of his own to defend, everyone recognizes the principle upon which he holds it.[48]


Footnotes

[1] Aristotle, Politics, translated by Ernest Barker, revised by R. F. Stalley (New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 1995), book II, ch. 3, pp. 42-43.

[2] Aristotle bases his discussion on the assumption that material property and families would be held in common throughout Plato’s ideal city, when in fact the entire thrust of the argument in the Republic justifies such an arrangement only for the guardian class. The guardians are meant to be a tiny minority selected and trained with the utmost care, and it is only this elaborate process of preparation that makes them suitable for sharing all. Plato understood very well that it is our common needs that give rise to society and that “more plentiful and better quality goods are more easily produced” where there is a division of labor and private property. Plato anticipated the need for imports and exports, for merchants and retailers, and for services of all kinds, and he understood well the need for private property as an inducement to industry. In contrast with Aristotle’s system, moreover, slaves are not a central feature of Plato’s ideal city, if there is a place for them there at all, which is not clear. In sum, Plato’s account underlines just how daunting a task it is to create even a small class within the best city that is not motivated primarily by personal gain, and the implications of his argument actually strengthen the case for private property in all but the most rarified cases. (Plato, Republic, translated by G. M. A. Grube, revised by C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992), pp. 44-47.)

[3] Locke provides the estimates of a hundred and a thousand to one, respectively, in ch. v of his Second Treatise, but his argument easily justifies much higher estimates still (John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, edited by C. B. Macpherson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), pars. 34-44, pp. 21-27).

[4] Locke par. 44, p. 27. Thus also Adam Smith: “The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable.” (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, edited by Edwin Cannan (New York: Modern Library, 2000), book I, ch. 10, part II, p. 140.)

[5] Shlomo Avineri, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State (Cambridge: at the University Press, 1972), pp. 135-36, compare 88-89, 171. Thus also Steven B. Smith: “The right of recognition ... is not simply a contingent feature of the modern state; it is its inner soul and purpose. Accordingly, one of the rights most crucial to the recognition of personality is the right to property. Property is not just instrumental to the attainment of material ends but is a means of moral self-realization or the development of personality.” (Steven B. Smith, Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 123.)

[6] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, edited by Phillips Bradley (New York: Vintage, 1990), vol. I, p. 245. On the role of play in human affairs, compare Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), which Hayek cites with approval.

[7] Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, translated with notes by T. M. Knox (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), §43-48, pp. 40-44.

[8] Hegel, Philosophy of Right, §44-46, pp. 41-43. G. W. F. Hegel, “The German Constitution,” in Hegel’s Political Writings, translated by T. M. Knox (Oxford: at the Clarendon Press, 1998), p. 149, fn. 1, p. 153. The priority of property to law is also stressed by Bastiat: “I would say: Property does not exist because there are laws, but laws exist because there is property.” (Frédéric Bastiat “Property and Law” in Selected Essays on Political Economy, edited by George B. de Huszar (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1995), p. 97, compare p. 110.)

[9] Compare Avineri, pp. 40-41.

[10] Hegel, Philosophy of Right, §40, p. 38.

[11] Hegel, Philosophy of Right, §49 and Additions, pp. 44, 237. Compare Edmund Burke’s dictum that “’Too much’ and ‘too little’ are treason against property.” (Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, edited by J. G. A. Pocock (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), p. 91.)

[12] Hegel, German Constitution, p. 155.

[13] Hegel, Philosophy of Right, §5, pp. 21-22, §49, p. 44.

[14] Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 22 ff. Compare Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, 3 vols. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973-1979), vol. 1, p. 14: “Economics has long stressed the ‘division of labor’... But it has laid much less stress on the fragmentation of knowledge, on the fact that each member of society can have only a small fraction of the knowledge possessed by all, and that each is therefore ignorant of most of the facts on which the working of the society rests. Yet it is the utilization of much more knowledge than anyone can possess ... that constitutes the distinctive feature of all advanced civilizations.”

[15] The dynamics of the “extended order” provide the guiding theme or Hayek’s grand summation of the case against socialism. (Friedrich Hayek, The Fatal Conceit, edited by W. W. Bartley III (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 6 ff.) For Adam Smith’s conception of the “Great Society,” in many ways analogous to Hayek’s extended order, see his Wealth of Nations, op. cit., p. 99 (bk. 1, ch.8), p. 301 (intro to bk. 2), p. 482 (bk. 4, ch. 2), p. 745 (bk. 4, ch. 9), and pp. 779, 830, 854 (all in bk. 5, ch. 1); as well as The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, edited by D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982), p. 229 (part 6, section 2, ch. 2), p. 234 (ibid.), and p. 235 (ibid., ch. 3).

[16] Wealth of Nations, book I, ch. 1, pp. 12-13.

[17] Hayek, Fatal Conceit, p. 127.

[18] Hayek, Fatal Conceit, pp. 14, 81, 86, 92, 97.

[19] Hayek, Fatal Conceit, pp. 99, 104.

[20] Hayek, Constitution of Liberty, p. 97.

[21] For Locke’s use of the image of the fence protecting personal property in the widest sense, compare Second Treatise, pars. 17 (p. 14), 93 (p. 50), 136 (p. 72), 222 (pp. 111 and 112).

[22] Hayek, Constitution of Liberty, pp. 7, 12-13, 16-17, 33, 35.

[23] Hayek, Constitution of Liberty, pp. 89-91; Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 163-64.

[24] Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism: The Classical Tradition, edited by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005), p. 13.

[25] The below discussion owes much to Hayek, Constitution of Liberty, pp. 42-49, 51-52, 130. Compare also Friedman, pp. 168, 170.

[26] Compare Hayek, Constitution of Liberty, pp. 125-26: “If we knew of no better way of providing such a group, there would exist a strong case for selecting at random one in a hundred, or one in a thousand, from the population at large and endowing them with fortunes sufficient for the pursuit of whatever they choose.”

[27] Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper 1976), p. 67.

[28] Compare Hayek, Constitution of Liberty, p. 51.

[29] Hayek, Constitution of Liberty, p. 42.

[30] Mises, Liberalism, 5. The theme is a time-honored one. Adam Smith wrote that “the accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king.” (Wealth of Nations, bk. I, ch. 1, p. 13) Locke had made a similar point, a century earlier, about conditions among the American natives: “[A] king of a large and fruitful territory there, feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-laborer in England.” (Second Treatise, par. 41, p. 27)

[31] José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (New York: Norton, 1993), pp. 26, 38, 41.

[32] Compare Hayek, Fatal Conceit, pp. 11, 16, 30, 42, 63-64, 79-80, 95, 126, 135; Constitution of Liberty, pp. 13, 40, 139-40, 148, 151, 207, 214.

[33] How even perfect strangers might engage in trading relations without any knowledge of each other, on the basis of mutual advantage alone, is nicely illustrated in Herodotus: “On reaching this country [of the strangers], they [the Carthaginians] unload their goods, arrange them tidily along the beach, and then, returning to their boats, raise a smoke. Seeing a smoke, the natives come down to the beach, place on the ground a certain quantity of gold in exchange for the goods, and go off again to a distance. The Carthaginians then come ashore and take a look at the gold; and if they think it represents a fair price for their wares, they collect it and go away; if, on the other hand, it seems too little, they go back aboard and wait, and the natives come and add to the gold until they are satisfied. There is perfect honesty on both sides: the Carthaginians never touch the gold until it equals in value what they have offered for sale, and the natives never touch the goods until the gold has been taken away.” (Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised by John Marincola (New York: Penguin, 1996), p. 277 (book 4, par. 196).

[34] Hayek, Fatal Conceit, pp. 39-40; Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 1, p. 82, vol. 2, pp. 144, 149.

[35] Hayek, Fatal Conceit, pp. 13, 65.

[36] Wealth of Nations, p. 14 (book I, ch. 2).

[37] Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, translated and edited by Anne M. Cohler et al. (Cambridge: at the University Press, 1989), book 20, ch. 3, p. 338.

[38] Tocqueville, vol. 1, pp. 10, 252. Compare ibid., vol. 2, p. 264: “The ever increasing numbers of men of property who are lovers of peace; the growth of personal wealth that war so rapidly consumes; the mildness of manners, the gentleness of heart, those tendencies to pity that are produced by the equality of conditions; that coolness of understanding which renders men comparatively insensible to the violent and poetical excitement of arms: all these causes concur to quench the military spirit.”

[39] Tocqueville, vol. 2, p. 254. In this spirit, see also Schumpeter on the rationalistic, anti-heroic, and thus fundamentally pacifistic character of the civilization of capitalism in sharp contrast to the structures of feudal society. The capitalist bourgeois may fight when he has to, of course, but he rarely fights for fighting’s sake, and even when he distinguishes himself in war, “there is a difference between doing that which you consider your normal business in life ... and doing what is not in your line, for which your normal work and your mentality do not fit you.” At the very least, capitalist structures and attitudes will leave a nation “more prone to count the costs of war” and to discover that “the balance of pecuniary advantage” is not often likely to be on the side of war (Schumpeter, pp. 127-29, 136-39).

[40] Tocqueville, vol. 2, p. 281. Military glory thus appeared to Tocqueville as an anachronism, an “empty pursuit” based on an “illusion” (vol. 1, pp. 160, 289). The very intermingling of interests among nations will also mean, however, that it may become increasingly difficult for anyone to go to war without embroiling everyone else: “Wars therefore become more rare, but when they break out, they spread over a larger field.” (Tocqueville, vol. 2, p. 281) Pitting not only entire countries against each other, but likely expansive coalitions of states armed to the teeth with the material and technological fruits of a long and productive peace, the scale of destruction may well make up for the decreased frequency of conflict. The First World War, coming on the heels of just such a long, productive peace, offers perhaps the most cautionary and melancholy example.

[41] Ortega y Gasset, pp. 179-80. From Herbert Spencer’s perspective, the military ethos looked simply “anti-social,” an anachronism soon to be overcome by “the pacific or industrial type” of society (Herbert Spencer, “Specialized Administration,” in The Man Versus the State With Six Essays on Government, Society, and Freedom (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982), p. 453; and “From Freedom to Bondage,” Ibid., pp. 496-97). For Mises, arguing in a similar spirit, war likewise appears merely archaic and indeed barbaric: “War only destroys, it cannot create. War, carnage, destruction and devastation we have in common with the predatory beasts of the jungle; constructive labor is our distinctively human characteristic.” (Mises, Liberalism, p. 6; also Human Action (Scholar’s Edition, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1998), pp. 827-28)

[42] Herodotus, p. 198 (book 3, pars. 115-16).

[43] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by Ernest C. Mossner (New York: Penguin, 1985), book III, part II, section 2, p. 543. Thus also Sir Henry Maine as quoted by Hayek: “Nobody is at liberty to attack several property and to say at the same time that he values civilization.” (Hayek, Constitution of Liberty, p. 140)

[44] Hume, Treatise, book III, part I, section 2, p. 526.

[45] Hume, Treatise, book III, part II, section 1, p. 536.

[46] Thus Rousseau’s discussion of the conspiracy of the rich in his “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality” and his unforgettable choreography, for all its dire tendencies, of the “imposter” who first enclosed a plot of land at the outset of part II of the essay (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Basic Political Writings, translated and edited by Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), pp. 60, 69-71). Karl Marx’ equation of private property with the exploitation and immiseration of the great majority strikes me as so intellectually bankrupt and irreconcilable with observable fact that I see no point in belaboring it here.

[47] It is in this sense that one might speak, with Bastiat, of the “providential fact” of property: not that it has never receded, but that it has always returned with renewed force (Bastiat, p. 110). Tocqueville wrote of the “providential fact” of democracy and the principle of equality in much the same spirit (Tocqueville, vol. 1, p. 6)

[48] Tocqueville, vol. 1, pp. 244-45.


Daniel Pellerin, is a Professor at the National University of Singapore. He also is a winner of The Sir John M. Templeton Fellowships Essay Contest.






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