Liberty and Property: One and Inseparable
JANUARY 01, 1968 by WILLIAM HENRY CHAMBERLAIN
Mr. Chamberlin is a skilled observer and reporter of economic and political conditions at home and abroad. In addition to writing a number of books, he has lectured widely and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and numerous magazines.
Two familiar left-wing clichés that are too often allowed to pass unexamined and unrefuted are that freedom under capitalism is freedom to starve and that human rights are superior to property rights. The implications are that people are most likely to go hungry under a system of free enterprise and private ownership and that there is a basic antagonism between human rights and property rights. Both assumptions are completely false and misleading.
Where have the great famines of the twentieth century occurred? There have been two in the Soviet Union, each costing millions of human lives, in 1921-22 and in 1932-33. Capitalism obviously cannot be blamed for either of these. The first was the product of a number of causes, drought, transportation breakdowns after years of fierce civil war, and last, but by no means least, the Soviet system of so-called war communism. Under this system the value of money was virtually abolished; the government requisitioned all the peasants’ "surplus" produce and, in theory, gave him what he needed in clothing, machinery, and manufactured goods. But this theory was seldom translated into fact; what actually happened was that armed requisitioning bands scoured the villages, confiscating any food stocks they found and giving nothing in return. Under these circumstances there was an understandable unwillingness of the peasant to raise more than he required for his own subsistence.
At least the Soviet Government admitted the fact of this famine and welcomed foreign aid from the American Relief Agency, headed by Herbert Hoover, and various foreign religious and charitable organizations. Its responsibility for the second great famine, in 1932-33, is far more unmistakable and undivided. This famine, which devastated what are normally the most fertile areas of European Russia, the Ukraine, and the North Caucasus, was primarily political in character.
Stalin was bringing all possible pressure to force the peasants to give up their individual holdings and accept regimentation in so-called collective farms, where they were completely under state control as regards what they should plant, how much they must surrender to the government, what prices they should receive. Weather conditions had been unfavorable and the peasants’ will to produce had been paralyzed. Yields were naturally low and I still recall, from a trip in rural areas, the striking number of weeds in the collective farm fields. The Soviet authorities easily could have coped with the food shortage by drawing on reserve stocks or importing food from abroad. Instead, heavy requisitions were imposed and the peasants were left to starve, as several millions of them did. Foreign relief was not permitted; honest reporting of the famine, its background and causes, was not permitted.
Industrial Taj Mahals
Famine has also occurred in recent years in communist China and in India. In India, socialist state planning led to systematic neglect of agriculture in favor of building big new factories, which a prominent Indian economist, B. R. Shenoy, has called "industrial Taj Mahals," out of proportion to the needs and absorption capacities of the country. There can be no serious suggestion that capitalism is responsible for starvation in India. For the disastrous famines that have occurred in the Soviet Union, China, and India there is no parallel in any country with an economy based on private property relations.
There is an intermediate phase between the stark horror of downright famine, with thousands of human beings perishing from lack of food and the diseases that malnutrition always brings, and the contented satisfaction of needs enjoyed by shoppers in an American supermarket. In this phase people are not acutely hungry but are condemned to a drab, unappetizing diet, either because of rationing or because foodstuffs which they may desire are not available in the stores. This is the present situation in Russia and in the communist-ruled areas of Central and Eastern Europe. There has been nothing of the kind in the strongholds of free enterprise and private property, in North America and Western Europe—at least, not since Great Britain got rid of rationing, prolonged by Labor governments after it had been dropped on the continent and finally abolished by the Conservatives in the fifties.
So much for the old wheeze about "freedom to starve" under free enterprise. It is the overwhelming testimony of experience that anyone who wishes to eat as much as he wishes and as wide a variety of foods as he wishes should stay away from communist and socialist states.
Property Rights Are Human Rights
And the supposed antithesis between "human" rights and "property" rights is quite nonexistent. For the right to own property and use it in lawful ways is a very basic human right and when this right disappears, others also swiftly vanish. What are, after all, basic human freedoms? Security against arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, and execution is surely prominent on the list. So is the right, through an uncoerced vote, to exercise some share of control in government decisions. And the right to state one’s views, in speech or writing, as an individual or in association with others. And to choose one’s form of work and occupation, without external coercion. And to travel freely to foreign countries, and, if one chooses, to quit one’s native country for residence in another. And to be secure against having letters opened and telephone conversations reported by snooping government agents. And to give up a job, or to change jobs without let or hindrance. And to publish newspapers and books, operate radio broadcasts, and generally communicate with one’s fellows without official censorship.
Call the roll of this list of elementary human rights and liberties and examine how it stands up under various social and economic systems. No form of government or society is perfect; but by and large the above mentioned liberties are pretty well observed in countries where the rights of private property are most scrupulously respected. Most or all are disregarded under any form of dictatorship. But the denial of every one of these human rights is most complete, systematic, and irrevocable under the dictatorships which have gone furthest in abolishing the right to own and utilize private property.
The regimes that are now in power in the Soviet Union, in mainland China, and in Cuba grew out of revolutions that took place under differing circumstances and against differing national backgrounds. But all these tyrannies, as also those in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Albania, have one negative trait in common. They recognize for the individual no right which the state may not arbitrarily withhold or deny.
Liberty is the first casualty after the wholesale nationalization and confiscation of property. This rule has been proven so often under so many circumstances in so many countries with such varied backgrounds that there can be no reasonable doubt as to its universal application.
The Communist Purge
Russia fifty years ago was the scene of the most thoroughgoing smashing of property rights ever witnessed. Land, factories, mines, banks, houses, stores, every imaginable form of tangible property, was taken over by the state. Such intangibles as stocks and bonds automatically became worthless, and this was also true as regards the prerevolutionary currency.
And along with this process went the systematic destruction of all the human rights and liberties that had been solemnly affirmed after the overthrow of the czarist regime a few months before. A secret police was set up with unlimited powers of arrest, sentence, and execution. This agency has several times changed its name and has operated sometimes more ruthlessly than at others; but it remains the ultimate sanction of Soviet dictatorship.
Voting became a farce, with only one set of candidates, handpicked by the ruling Communist Party, to vote for. Fifty years after the inauguration of the communist system there is not one organ of opinion in the Soviet Union that is free from state censorship and control. No meetings may be held, no clubs or societies formed, without official approval. To leave the country for travel abroad, a right casually exercised every year by millions of Americans and West Europeans, is for the Soviet citizen a rarely granted privilege. Foreigners resident in Moscow have long become accustomed to receiving letters which have quite obviously been opened. Foreign embassies take every precaution against the constant bugging of conversation within their walls and no Russian in his right mind speaks freely over the telephone.
Forced labor has been a prominent feature of the Soviet system, varying from the barbarous cruelty of concentration camps where millions of men and women were overworked and underfed in the Arctic climate of Northern Russia and Northern Siberia, to the milder constraint put upon university graduates in medicine, engineering, and teaching to accept assignment to remote localities for two years after graduation. And this same pattern of recognizing no inherent rights of the citizen, of treating him merely as a tool and chattel of an all-powerful state, has reappeared in China and in Castro’s Cuba. During the last decade bitter hostility has developed between the Soviet and Chinese communist regimes. There have been instances of more or less suppressed friction between Moscow and its east European satellites. Fidel Castro as the first totalitarian ruler in Latin America has not operated under the same conditions, human and material, as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung.
And communism takes on differing national colorations, depending on the people on whom it is imposed. All the more significant, therefore, is the universal common trait of every communist regime, in Europe, in Asia, in Latin America. This is the denial of every basic individual liberty for the individual.
Locke: "Life, Liberty, and Property"
When England, after half a century of turmoil, civil war, religious and political persecution and proscriptions, reached its great compromise in the establishment of constitutional monarchy under William III in 1688, the greatest exponent of the new mood was the political scientist and philosopher, John Locke. By nature broad-minded and tolerant, Locke worked out a theoretical scheme well calculated to satisfy a people sick of the excesses of royal despotism, on one side, and of Puritan rule, embodied in Cromwell’s personal dictatorship, on the other.
Locke, whose thought influenced the Founding Fathers of the American Republic as much as the leaders of his native England, strongly vindicated the rights of the individual citizen as against the state. For the old-fashioned theory of an anointed king ruling by divine right he substituted the conception of society as a body of individuals living together for mutual convenience and conferring on government only certain limited and specifically defined powers. He emphasized the "natural right of life, liberty, and property," properly regarding all three as closely associated. It was perhaps an accident that the Declaration of Independence did not restate Locke’s formula, substituting for property the rather meaningless phrase: "pursuit of happiness." Property, in Locke’s opinion, is "the great and chief end of men’s uniting into commonwealths."
Progress in guarantied individual liberty has marched side by side with assured guaranties of the right of the individual to accumulate and enjoy property. Great principles of ordered liberty were symbolized in John Hampden’s resistance to the payment of "ship money," a tax imposed for a phony purpose by the arbitrary power of King Charles I, and in the actions of Hampden’s successors, the rebellious colonists, in refusing to pay taxes on stamps and tea levied without American representation by the British Parliament.
It was because men like Hampden were prepared to stand up for their rights (including their property rights) that England until recent times was a lightly taxed country. And, of course, the conflicts over the stamp and tea taxes were the overture to the establishment of the American Republic.
Freedom in all its forms, including not least economic freedom, must always be defended, although the enemy changes with changing times. Absolute kings and emperors have disappeared into the archives of history and no longer constitute a threat. The principal threat to freedom now is the adoption of measures that in some countries have led and in others might lead to the modern-style demagogic dictatorship, which, in the name of abolishing exploitation, sets up a superstate with unrivaled powers for exploiting its subjects and invariably strikes down every other freedom as a sequel to eliminating economic freedom.
The surest brake on the tendency of government to exceed its proper functions and degenerate into tyranny is a strong propertied middle class. It was the emergence of such a class that sounded the death knell of absolutist monarchs and feudal barons. The destruction of such a class is the invariable first objective of the totalitarian communist revolution that exploits discontent, justified or unjustified, in order to set up a tyranny far worse than anything against which it rebelled.
One may paraphrase a famous oratorical climax of Daniel Webster, himself a stout defender of economic freedom, and sum up as follows the lesson to be drawn from all historical experience, past and present:
Liberty and Property. One and Inseparable. Now and Forever.