Not many people are breathlessly awaiting the latest book on libertarian economics. Let’s talk about dinner instead.
You go out to a restaurant with a group of friends and agree to split the check evenly. You’re not very hungry, so you order asparagus hollandaise. You do fill up on a second basket of bread, though. Meanwhile, your friend Doug orders a filet bearnaise and a couple of cabernets. When you divvy up the check, you find that your meal has cost you twice what it said on the menu, and you hate Doug.
Is Doug selfish? Yes, because the cost of what he ate is partly passed on to others. But maybe not, because he wasn’t violating the rules of the dinner—he paid an equal share of the check. Then again, would you have had the second basket of bread if they had charged you for it? So some people enjoyed something at others’ expense, maybe there was some overconsumption, and the odds that anyone at dinner paid exactly for what he ate are close to zero.
Welcome, comrade, to the problem of the free rider. Your dinner with Doug encapsulates what has gone wrong with almost every experiment in communal property in history. People work too little, consume too much, and wind up hating each other.
In The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, Tom Bethell delivers a thought-provoking history of private property. It’s possibly the only such history—Bethell says there are no other books specifically on the subject of property and that he hopes this introduction will offer a new means of analysis, looking at the world through the “lens of property.” Although the relationship between property and material wealth is widely recognized, Bethell gives equal value to private property’s contribution to a just and peaceful society. If Doug buys his own steak and you go without the second basket of bread, serenity reigns over after-dinner coffees. The problem of the free rider at dinner is solved by separate checks; in society, by private property.
The book’s title comes from 18th-century social theorist Jeremy Bentham’s description of property laws as “the noblest triumph of humanity over itself.” Bethell explains why humanity needs this triumph; he argues that a just society allows people (like Doug) to consume anything they want as long as they don’t pass the cost on to others:
[A] private property regime makes people feel responsible for their own actions in the realm of material goods. Such a system therefore ensures that people experience the consequences of their own acts. Property sets up fences, but it also surrounds us with mirrors, reflecting back upon us the consequences of our own behavior.
The most interesting examples Bethell refocuses through his “lens of property” are 17th-century America’s Plymouth and Jamestown colonies. We are familiar with the trials of the Massachusetts colony. The elementary school version suggests that once Squanto told the colonists their festive autumn decorations were edible, the colony prospered. However, William Bradford, governor of Plymouth and author of the only contemporary account, reports a less happy turn of events: After gorging on turkey, leaning against a stump, unbuckling their belts, shoes, and hats, and enjoying a tryptophan coma, the colonists got right back to bickering.
The source of their misery, according to Bethell, was financial. The English industrialists who had bankrolled the colony forbade the colonists to work any land for private gain. After seven years, all Plymouth’s assets were to be divided, with half going to the investors and the other half divided equally among the settlers. Indeed, Bradford blamed this communalism for the squabbling and resentment among the colonists—and it sounds as if the Mayflower carried over at least a couple of Dougs. Strong men resented weaker men who didn’t work as hard but got the same rations. Old people resented the young and thought the system disrespectful to them. Childless workers resented having to work to feed other people’s children, and women resented having to polish all those buckles.
Thirteen years before Plymouth, the Jamestown colony had been founded under similar communal principles. As Bethell says is inevitable whenever the free rider is allowed to saddle up, the Virginians were soon starving. Only 60 of the first 600 colonists were alive after two years of settlement, most having died of “meere famine.” This despite their having stumbled onto nature’s Cracker Barrel, an area crawling with turkey, mussels, oysters, berries, deer, and so on. Starvation was so pressing that in one case, the colonists exhumed an Indian they’d killed and ate him as stew.
What ultimately enabled both colonies to thrive was the institution of a degree of private ownership. Sir Thomas Dale, who became high marshal in 1611, allotted the men in Jamestown three acres each to farm for themselves and reduced their servitude to the community from full-time to one month per year. By 1616, the colony had gone from eating dead Indians to trading its surplus corn for their animal skins. Similarly, once houses and farmlands in Plymouth were allocated to individual families, the colony flourished, paid off the financiers, and settled in to wait for football to be invented.
With private property thus seemingly triumphant, what happened? Bethell blames the 20th century’s subsequent weakening of property rights on an intellectual current in 19th-century England. Philosophers as diverse as utilitarian John Stuart Mill, anarchist William Godwin, and Marxist Karl Marx all believed property would vanish when Man (with a capital M) was perfected. These people, who had seen huge advances in technology in their lifetimes, thought that technology wouldn’t change much in the future, but that human beings, who hadn’t changed much since the Olduvai Gorge, were on the verge of a profound metamorphosis. The new FutureMan would naturally work for the common good and would take only what he needed in return. (Picture Doug throwing in a twenty and then ordering only a bowl of soup.)
I confess that whenever someone’s preaching free enterprise and individual rights, I am in the choir. I am the soprano in the front row, hitting the high C’s. The problem is, if that weren’t the case, I question whether I’d find Triumph all that persuasive. Bethell fails to address two probable objections to his book.
First, many people would worry how restoring property rights that have been eroded in the 20th century would affect those who have no property. (As with all the history in the book, Bethell does a good job of cataloging that erosion.) Right or wrong, there is a common school of thought that there are haves and have-nots in the world, and the haves have at the expense of the have-nots. Bethell argues obliquely that poor people are always better off in a property-friendly society, even if they don’t own anything, when he writes about contemporary Peruvian squatters’s rights and the great Irish famine of the mid-1800s; but that motif isn’t going to resonate beyond the choir box.
Second, Bethell ignores the visceral appeal of a world that is somehow above the need for property. He does an excellent job of refuting the socialist Utopians but does nothing to repudiate the association of property rights with a consumerist, “soulless” society. Actor and former communard Peter Coyote wasn’t just channeling John Stuart Mill when he wrote
From our point of view, freedom involved first liberating the imagination from economic assumptions of profit and private property that demanded existence at the expense of personal truthfulness and honor…If enough people began to behave in this way, we believed, the culture would invariably change to accommodate them and become more compassionate and more human in the process.
These objections aren’t irrefutable, but Bethell fails to refute them. At the end of the book, it is unclear whether there is a future in owning stuff. Ironically, property’s bellwether is nominally communist China, and Russia is struggling to dismantle its centrally planned economy. Meanwhile, in the prosperous West, as Milton Friedman wrote, “it is only a little overstated to say that we preach individualism and competitive capitalism, and practice socialism.”
Will communal FutureMan emerge and triumph over the likes of Doug? I’ll break bread with either of them, as long as we get separate checks. CP