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Whither property rights?

By Paul J. Cella III
web posted November 25, 2002

Some time ago good friend of mine wrote me to chastise what he views as my hopelessly dogmatic anti-communism. The bulk of the letter eludes memory at the moment, but I do quite distinctly recall the appearance on stage of a dread phrase: "land reform." And its appearance in the context, if I recall correctly, of the Cold War in Latin America made it all the more dreadful.

For those who love liberty, "land reform" is among the most fearsome phrases in the English language; for what is almost invariably denoted by it is the systematic expropriation by the state of the property of individuals, usually under the auspices of egalitarian sympathy for the peasants or some such grandiloquent rumination; and thus what is also denoted, more broadly, is the weakening and even obliteration of property rights, an indispensable cornerstone of the rule of law.

"Land reform" is Robert Mugabe's euphemism in Zimbabwe for organized plunder of some of the choice farmland in Africa, which, on account of its ownership by whites, makes a vulnerable target for state-sponsored theft on a vast scale, and which, on account of its unproductiveness in the hands of the new, unskilled owners, is now contributing to a horrible famine. It was Stalin's mantra, as it was Mao's, when they unleashed egalitarian barbarism to occasion two of history's greatest man-made catastrophes, both famines as well. Less obvious calamities were perpetrated by benighted land-reformers Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam and the Shah of Iran in the 1960s, both on plans and formulations concocted by abstraction-inebriated intellectuals from the West; both of which insidiously set their respective nations on the path of chaos, misery, war and ultimately tyranny.

It is truly astonishing to reflect on the extent to which the security of private ownership is treated with indifference if not outright contempt by the world's educated elites, despite its demonstrated indispensability to a functioning economy and social order. The insecurity of property in the Third World may be the single most important factor in explaining the state of squalor which persists in the face of so much well-meaning activity to alleviate it. The pulverizing essence of it is this: Once the state has shown a disposition to plunder the property of some, whatever soothing platitudes are offered justify it, there is no reason to trust that it will not do so again, and again, and again. Tom Bethell examined the ruinous record of land reform in a penetrated essay back in 1985:

[In some places] it turned out that new owners could not sell their land for thirty years. This was intended to prevent them from selling it back to those from whom it had been taken. The effect was to weaken property rights considerably, because those who cannot realize the value of what they own cannot really be said to own it, and will certainly be deterred from improving it . . . Moreover, the new owners weren't allowed to rent out "their" land either, because if they did they would become… absentee landlords! And subject to expropriation in turn. This destructive and tyrannical provision . . . effectively returns a country to serfdom.

Even in the United States, this bastion of free enterprise and rule of law, property rights are looked on askance by a great many elites. Leftists and liberals from here to The Nation who profess a heartfelt commitment to personal privacy nonetheless countenance with perfect equanimity the annual violation of privacy that comes with the Sixteenth Amendment (national income tax), in accord with which every income-earning American citizen must lay bare in exquisite detail all his economic activity for the previous year, with the burden of proof in any dispute resting on him not the state.

This economic inquisition is so multifarious, its instruments so cacophonous, that it has generated entire industries dedicated exclusively to mitigating the burden of tax disclosure and compliance. There is perhaps a melancholy delight to be had in this fact: that human enterprise is so irrepressible as to develop profitable and respected professions parasitically coupled to the state's rapaciousness. But the melancholy does not abide delight for long. The annoyances, inefficiencies, absurdities, barbarities, distortions, frauds, routine outrages, little-remarked plunderings, malfeasances, and stoically-endured indignities spawned by brassbound our tax code beggar the imagination; the thing makes Enron and WorldCom look like child's play.

A man's urge to produce pornographic material using the likeness of children; a woman's license to abort her child as it descends the birth canal; a student's desire not to be even mildly offended in public debate -- these things our intellectual elite regard serenely as civil rights. But not the right of the common citizen to security of his privately-owned property -- that remains controversial even in principle.

Paul J. Cella III can be found blogging at http://cellasreview.blogspot.com. He can be reached at Paul.cella@turner.com.

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