The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages
Allen, William R., Freeman
The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages
by Tom Bethell
St. Martin's Press * 1998 * 378 pages * $29.95
Property is a multifaceted and fundamental topic. Tom Bethell here gives us a broad survey, dealing with economic, political, and legal theory; episodes of economic and political activity; and assessments of institutional constraints and procedures from ancient Greece to virtually the day before yesterday. Since the fiasco in the Garden of Eden, we have lived in a world of scarcity. The ineluctable state of limits implies not only frustration but also conflict. But there are many ways to compete, and communities differ enormously in how the economic/social/ political game is played.
How we survey our possibilities and formulate our strategies, how we interact with each other and coordinate our efforts, is determined largely by the rules of the game. Those rules basically are subsumed under "rights to use of property." The right to use property we "own" is necessarily limited-I cannot use my hammer to break your window-but what are those limits, how are they determined, and by whom? Property rights go far to define the nature of the community, providing constraints, opportunities, and incentives with respect to what we do and how we do it and determining how we adapt to our niggardly circumstances. Some systems of property rights are much more conducive than others to living together productively and civilly.
The implications of who has what property rights include subtle aspects of political and social philosophy. "The Western concept of human rights presupposes individualism," Bethell writes, and individualism finds much of its operational manifestation in private rights in property. Equality before the law and freedom of contract are antecedent to a freemarket economy.
All this is pursued, elaborated, and illustrated by Bethell with references to a mass of varied literature, from ancient to modern. He is centrally concerned with "the legal and political foundations that are essential to economic growth." In an individualistic open market with well-defined property rights, options can be discovered; opportunities can be identified; negotiations and exchanges can be conducted; division of labor and coordination can be effectuated; long-range plans can be confidently formulated; and credit can be obtained. Moreover, good stewardship of assets is rational. …