NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Private Property Is The Wealth Of Nations

August 19, 1998

In "The Noblest Triumph" (St. Martin's Press), journalist Tom Bethell concludes that those nations that protect and defend property rights have power and prosperity; those where property rights are nonexistent or insecure invariably are condemned to poverty and weakness.

In ancient Greece, Plato thought private property was evil and favored communal ownership; Aristotle thought communal ownership was inefficient and allowed the lazy to take advantage of the industrious. Throughout history, men have tested their competing visions of property's role in society.

  • The settlers in Jamestown, Va., Bethell tells us, were mostly indentured servants required to deposit all their production in a common store; as a consequence, they did not produce very much, leading to famine and many deaths.
  • However, when a new governor allowed colonists to work their own land, paying only a portion to the store (Bethell calls it a kind of flat tax system), production soared and the colony was saved.
  • The Pilgrims in Massachusetts initially attempted to live in a communal society without private property, and they too suffered severe deprivation until allowed to produce for themselves on their own land.

Early economists such as Adam Smith did not defend private property because they assumed that property is privately owned and protected by the state. This failure to put property rights on a secure economic and philosophical foundation led to Marxism, and despite its collapse, Bethell believes property still lacks a satisfactory intellectual defense.

Those who really need property rights are not the rich, but the poor. It is only by giving them a chance to reap the rewards of their own labor that the poor have a chance to escape their poverty, Bethell believes. Thus the best foreign aid we can give to developing countries may be a legal code that protects private property


Browse more articles on Economic Issues