Tom Bethell Explains Why Property Matters

By Lucier, James P. | Insight on the News, November 2, 1998 | Go to article overview

Tom Bethell Explains Why Property Matters


Lucier, James P., Insight on the News


A British teacher-turn-columnist examines why some countries, especially in the West, have experiences superior economic development. His detailed findings may surprise many.

Tom Bethell graduated from Oxford University k Trinity College in 1962, proceeded to the United States in September of that year and found himself teaching mathematics to preppies at Woodbury Forest School in Orange, Va. Abandoning the blackboard, he next turned up in New Orleans, where he befriended some of the last remaining original jazz musicians at Preservation Hall, making recordings of their work. His book on New Orleans jazz and its origins was published by the University of California Press in 1977. While in New Orleans, he became involved in a counterculture newspaper called the Vieux Carre Courier and worked as a researcher on District Attorney Jim Garrison's investigation of the John Kennedy assassination.

His journalistic instincts next brought him to Washington in 1975, where he slipped into the community of supply-side economists and writers. He has remained there ever since. He first joined the staff of the establishment liberal magazine, the Washington Monthly, edited by Charlie Peters. "By coincidence, there was another writer on the staff named Thomas N. Bethell, who was to the left of Peters, while I was to the right," Bethell tells Insight. "Charlie used to say that `I have two Tom Bethells on my staff, and I don't agree with either one of them." Our Tom eventually migrated to the Washington bureau of Harper's magazine and then to the American Spectator. For 20 years he has written a monthly column for the Spectator. A collection of this wisdom was published by Regnery in 1988 as The Electric Windmill: An Inadvertent Autobiography. From time to time Bethell was invited to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University as a media fellow, where he began work on his newest book, published by St. Martin's Press, titled The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages.

Insight: When did you start to work on The Noblest Triumph?

Tom Bow: I started to work on that around 1989-90. I knew that the subject of property was fundamental to Western civilization, and I knew that it had been neglected, that not enough attention had been paid to it. Of course right at that time in 1989 the socialist experiment in the Soviet Union -- life without private property -- was just coming to an end, and it had proved to be a total failure. Everyone had been waiting to see what the outcome of this experiment would be.

There were lots of pretenses that socialism was working, until very late. Even as late as 1989, the U.S. Commerce Department in the Statistical Abstract of the United States had figures that said that the per capita gross national product [or GNP] in East Germany was higher than that in West Germany. The CIA was saying that the GNP of the Soviet Union was double that of the United States. Incredible!

After the failure of the experiment became undeniable, the dam broke and that's when all kinds of stuff about property began to come out. I already was working on it.

Insight: When you talk about property, are you referring to land, acreage, capital assets?

TB: I'm referring to property in its broadest possible sense. I wanted to write a wide-angle book, where you look at various events in history, and especially at the question of why some countries, especially in the West, have more economic development, and why such economic development has not arisen all over the world -- as was expected widely after World War II.

The development economists were predicting that the whole world would become developed because the ingredients of development were thought to be capital and technology, both of which can be easily exported. But it turned out that legal and political institutions were the fundamental ingredients missing in their analysis and in the analysis of Western elites generally. …

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