[Marxism] Private property: The god Alan Greenspan worships

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Sun Oct 14 15:31:08 MDT 2007

(While I have just glanced a bit at the book, I couldn't resist the
chance to scan a few quick snippets which weren't taken up in that
NY Times review. Greenspan doesn't say if he follows any kind of a
FORMAL religious practice, but it seems that the god before whom he
bows above all is Private Property. It is helpful to understand the
religious conviction he really feels, and it's also worth noting the
contradiction which Greenspan sees between capitalism and its fetish:
Private Property, on the one hand, and religion and socialism on the
other. Ayn Rand was, of course, an atheist, but a reactionary, right-
wing atheist. More proof that what really matters isn't what anyone
thinks about life in the supernatural, spiritual, after-death world,
but what kind of actions you take in this real world here and NOW.)


`Marx was hardly the first to condemn private ownership; the notion
that private property is sinful, along with profit making and lending
at interest, has deep roots in Christianity, Islam, and other
religions. Only with the Enlightenment did countervailing principles
emerge to provide a moral basis for ownership and profit. John Locke,
the great seventeenth-century British philosopher, wrote of the
"natural right" of every individual to "life, liberty and estate."
Such thinking profoundly influenced America's Founding Fathers and
helped foster free-market capitalism in the United States.

The fall of the Soviet Union concluded a vast experiment: the long-
standing debate about the virtues of economies organized around free
markets and those governed by centrally planned socialism is
essentially at an end. To be sure, there are still a few who support
old-fashioned socialism. But what the vast majority of the remaining
socialists now advocate is a highly diluted form, often called market

I am not alleging that the world is about to embrace market
capitalism as the only relevant form of economic and social
organization. Vast numbers of people still consider capitalism with
its emphasis on materialism degrading. And one can seek material
well-being and yet view competitive markets as subject to excessive
manipulation by advertisers and marketers who trivialize life by
promoting superficial and ephemeral values. Some governments, such as
that of China, even now attempt to override the evident preferences
of their citizens by limiting their access to foreign media, which
they fear will undermine their culture. Finally, there remains a
latent protectionism, in the United States and elsewhere, which could
emerge as a potent force against international trade and finance and
the free-market capitalism they support, particularly if today's
high-tech world economy should falter. Nonetheless, the verdict on
central planning has been rendered, and it is unequivocally negative.

Regrettably, the notion of rights to capital and other income-earning assets
remains conflicted, especially in societies that still believe that profit
seeking is not quite moral. A key purpose of property rights, after all, is
to protect assets in order to use them to profit. Such rights are not
supportable in a society that holds any significant remnant of the Marxist
view of property as "theft." That notion rests on the presumption that
wealth created under a division of labor is produced jointly, and hence is
owned collectively. Any rights inhering in an individual therefore must be
"stolen" from society as a whole. Such a view, of course, predates Marx and
has deep roots in many religions.

The presumption of individual property ownership and the legality of its
transfer must be deeply embedded in the culture of a society for free-market
economies to function effectively. In the West, the moral validity of
property rights is accepted, or at least acquiesced in, by virtually the
whole of the population. Attitudes toward property ownership are passed from
one generation to the next through family values and education. These
attitudes derive from the deepest values governing social interaction that
people hold. Hence, the transition from the so-called collective rights of
socialist economies to the individual property rights of market economies
can be expected to he slow. Altering what a nation teaches its children is
difficult and cannot be accomplished overnight.

Clearly, not all democracies protect the private right of property with the
same fervor. Indeed, they vary widely. India, the largest democracy in the
world, has so much regulation of business activity that it significantly
weakens the right to freely use and dispose of individual property, an
essential measure of the degree of property-rights protection. Nor is it the
case that all societies with firmly protected property rights bend
invariably to the majority will of the populace on all public issues.
Certainly in its earlier years Hong Kong did not have a democratic process
but a "list of rights" protected by British common law. Singapore, from a
similar heritage, protects property and contract rights, the crucial pillars
of market efficiency, but lacks other characteristics of Western democracies
with which we are familiar. Nonetheless, democracies with a free press and
protection of minority rights are the most effective form of government that
safeguards property rights, largely because such democracies rarely allow
discontent to rise to a point that leads to explosive changes in economic
regimes. Authoritarian capitalism, on the other hand, is inherently unstable
because it forces aggrieved citizens to seek redress outside the law. That
risk is capitalized in higher financing costs.

While the debate over property rights and democracy will doubtless persist,
I was taken with an observation made by Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner
in economics: "In the terrible history of famines in the world, no
substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic
country with a relatively free press. We cannot find exceptions to this
rule, no matter where we look." With the media in authoritarian regimes
tending toward self-censorship, market-interventionist policies-the most
prevalent cause of disrupted distribution of food-go unreported and
uncorrected until too late.

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