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Please Fence Me In


Richard Pipes is a distinguished historian of Russia whose work became prominent during the cold war. His accounts of Russian history, before and after the revolutions of 1917, are framed by a familiar question: Why did Russia not develop into a pluralist liberal democracy of a European, or North Atlantic, variety, but instead became the Soviet tyranny that outdid in atrocity and irrationality anything that its predecessor regimes had done? For all that, Pipes seems to take little comfort from the collapse of the Soviet regime. Indeed, he gives the impression that the removal of the external threat to the United States has simply allowed him to concentrate on the threats to American liberty from its own welfare institutions.

In Property and Freedom Professor Pipes ruminates on the grand themes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophical history and their implications today. It is, he admits, not a field where he feels as confident as he does on his professional terrain, but he will disarm most readers when he quotes Jacob Burckhardt’s rousing defense of the dilettante:

In learning…one can attain mastery only of a limited field, namely as a specialist, and this mastery one should attain. But if one does not wish to forfeit the ability to form a general overview—indeed, to have respect for such an overview—then one should be a dilettante in as many fields as possible—at any rate, privately—in order to enhance one’s own knowledge and enrichment of diverse historical viewpoints. Otherwise one remains an ignoramus in all that lies beyond one’s specialty, and under the circumstances, on the whole, a barbarous fellow.

Whatever one might say of Professor Pipes, he is not a barbarous fellow. He has read widely and brooded deeply; he writes vigorously and lucidly; and if he has all too often missed the point of what he has read, and is obsessed with fears that were unrealistic when they were first ventilated in 1835 (by Alexis de Tocqueville) and 1888 (by Sir Henry Maine), he has at least demonstrated the truth of John Stuart Mill’s observation that on great subjects there is always something more to be said.

Professor Pipes’s theme, taken in the large, is the claim that no society can be free that does not respect private property; his fear is that although the sanctity of property is no longer threatened by the outright hostility of Communists and socialists, it may be undermined by the welfare state. In particular, he shares Alexis de Tocqueville’s fear that the logical terminus of the welfare state is what one might call the administered society, one in which individual liberty has vanished and all are under the benign command of rulers who cannot be challenged or gainsaid. Such rulers would anyway be unlikely to be challenged or gainsaid by the comfortable human flocks for whom they care.

It is an old and famous anxiety, and it comes in many guises. In Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World, the search for instant gratification animates the carefully managed population, and the moral is that pleasure and freedom are at odds with each other. The absence of private property may seem to be an incidental feature of the society described by Huxley, but it is not; “Fordism”—the use of scientifically organized mass production to gratify the manipulated tastes of the consumer—sees all raw materials and all human abilities as collective resources. Their value does not lie in their being owned by anyone but in being used for maximum gratification. They must be at the disposal of experts, epitomized by the figure of the Director, not under the control of innumerable private citizens.

Hannah Arendt did not write best-selling novels, but The Human Condition tells a not dissimilar story. Self-government is possible only for independent, self-supporting citizens; politics provides the frame that allows large numbers of very different individuals to lead their own lives as free beings. To engage in their own projects, they need their own resources. They need resources of “their own” to control, to exploit, and to work on, which is to say that private property is one of the preconditions of there being anything we can properly call political life. The point was made briefly and elegantly by Aristotle two and a half millennia ago; Plato, he complained, had been so desperate to preserve the unity of the ideal society depicted in The Republic that he had deprived its members of everything that made them different from one another. The absence of a plurality of aims and viewpoints did not purify politics, however; it destroyed it.

To this old claim, Arendt added the perception that if welfare is the only measure of value, politics will be replaced by management. Although utilitarian thinkers from Jeremy Bentham to Henry Sidgwick argued that private property was the basis of economic efficiency (and the failures of socialism in the twentieth century suggest they were right), Arendt thought the search for efficiency was a two-edged weapon. Her concern was with freedom. If efficiency is all that matters, property rights can be overturned whenever it is efficient to do so. But Arendt thought that the quirky pluralism that arises when a variety of different people employ their own resources as they think fit was the basis of freedom, but anathema to the managerial instinct for efficiency. This insight made her a particularly savage critic of Marx. Marx’s hope that the “government of men” will give way to the “administration of things” is exactly the wrong hope; if things are administered, men will be administered as well, and freedom will vanish from the world.

Professor Pipes’s approach is neither as witty as Huxley’s nor as philosophically sophisticated as Arendt’s. It is for the most part sober and historical, though it begins philosophically and ends polemically. The two central chapters of Property and Freedom consist of a contrast between the way in which private property, parliamentary democracy, social pluralism, and a respect for human rights developed in England and the way they failed to develop in “patrimonial” Russia. These historical comparisons are preceded by a tour of political theorists from Plato to John Rawls, and a brisk survey of the rights over persons, things, and land that have mattered to hunter-gatherers, agriculturalists, and ourselves. The book ends with an account of “property in the twentieth century,” which starts with some observations on Bolshevism and fascism and ends with a lugubrious attack on affirmative action.

Professor Pipes is a clever and well-read man, but he is too much at the mercy of his conviction that we are hastening toward the “gentle despotism” that Tocqueville foresaw as the fate that threatened an egalitarian society such as the United States. Pipes ends the book with Tocqueville’s wonderfully plangent words:

After having thus taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arms over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained by it from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

An alternative and more summary view might be extracted from Sir Henry Maine’s Popular Government. Maine had described the development of law as moving “from status to contract,” as people became autonomous and their property came more firmly under their own control. He feared that democracy would reverse the process and would create a new form of feudalism.

If this is what we have to avoid, what is the role of private property in the argument? Professor Pipes does not really know. He has, it is not unfair to say, no great talent for analysis. In particular, he finds it hard to decide when he is making a causal claim—the sociological claim that the widely dispersed and generally unfettered ownership of land and other resources promotes liberal democracy—and when he is making a moral claim—that anyone who cares about freedom should care about private property as part of that freedom. Both are respectable positions, but they are not identical. It is clear, however, that the case Professor Pipes most wants to make is the causal case. Private property is the foundation of freedom in the sense that a society where most people feel strongly about the inviolability of their property will not easily be oppressed by would-be absolute rulers.

Pipes, however, is a good historian; he knows that although the English hatred of arbitrary levies was one of the things that led the opponents of the seventeenth-century Stuart monarchy to curb its pretensions and in the end to drive James II into exile, the French minded no less about their possessions, and found themselves with an absolute monarchy nonetheless. Certainly, as Pipes’s brief histories of England and Russia show, what England developed and what Russia did not develop was a strong sense of the social, moral, and intellectual autonomy of the individual. It is plausible that once there is such a sense and the “middling sort” have resources on which to rely, they will both wish to check the aspirations of absolute rulers and be able to do it. But the role of private property in the equation is not easy to separate out from a host of other cultural factors, among which religious conviction is an obvious one.

There have been many societies in which private property was taken seriously and political liberty was almost wholly absent. To take a familiar example: Milton Friedman, who held very much the same view as Pipes does about the importance of capitalism as the basis of liberal democracy, was quite clear that under apartheid South Africa took property seriously but was a racist tyranny nonetheless. It is often said that, both there and in Chile, property owners made a pact with the Devil; they would sacrifice their own liberties and those of their inferiors so long as their property was left untouched. It could be said that the seventeenth-century Englishmen who thwarted the ambitions of the Stuart monarchy did so by hazarding their property in the search for freedom.

The anthropologist Alan Macfarlane, on whom Professor Pipes draws for the thought that the English taste for private property and individual freedom is immemorial, has always argued that the cultural and political package that defined English liberty—moral individualism, liberal democracy, an ethic of “stand on your own two feet,” and unfettered private ownership—was a peculiarity of the English, or at most a peculiarity of northwestern Europe. Property comes into the equation, but so do such nonmaterial factors as the English habit of marrying late and expecting all children but the eldest son to fend for themselves.

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