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 …

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