Property and Freedom Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Richard Pipes has written almost exclusively on various aspects of Russian history over a period of thirty-five years, and Property and Freedom is not altogether a change of pace. In composing it, this longtime Harvard University professor has drawn on the insights gained in his area of specialization. Furthermore, the thesis of the book has been prefigured in several of his earlier works. It is a paradoxical thesis: While individual ownership of property can occur without personal liberty, freedom cannot exist without property. This is true, the author insists, whether the concept of property is understood as consisting simply of things (land, capital, and items of personal use such as housing, clothing, and the like) or, more broadly, as encompassing even a person’s life and liberty.

The author contends that although the ideas of liberty, property, and their interconnections have long been studied, they have not been examined by historians. Thus, although Pipes’s subject matter is philosophical, his approach is historical. Realizing that anything like a comprehensive study of the relationship between property and political systems over several thousand years of recorded history would prove an impossibly large study, he has chosen to survey property briefly as idea and institution in the Western world, then to devote substantial chapters to critical eras in the history of England and Russia, and finally to focus on salient developments in the twentieth century with emphasis on the United States. He acknowledges his inability to extend his study to areas of the world other than Europe and the United States.

In his preliminary pages on the idea of property in classical antiquity, Pipes finds Plato and Aristotle setting forth the grounds of a disagreement about property that has resonated through the years into the twentieth century. The guardians of Plato’s Politeia (388-386 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701), significantly, own no property lest it promote disputes, while in the less utopian Nomoi(360-347 b.c.e.; Laws, 1804) private property, while allowed, still must be carefully regulated by the state. Aristotle, on the other hand, in his Politica (335-323 b.c.e.; Politics, 1598) objects to common ownership not only for theoretical reasons but also for the practical reason that people do not take care of things that are not their own.

As Pipes works his way through thinkers about property in subsequent centuries, he finds the benefits of private ownership gradually winning out over utopian idealism: “Aristotle has triumphed over Plato.” The author’s treatments of landmark works along the way, for example Sir Thomas More’s De Optimo Reipublicae Statu, deque Nova Insula Utopia (1516; Utopia, 1551), Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discours sur l’œconomie politique (1755; Discourse on Political Economy, 1797), and Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (1848; The Communist Manifesto, 1850) of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, are necessarily briefer than the secondary sources he cites. In the process, Pipes falls into the error of discussing a work like More’s as though it were a treatise. This weakness, common among political historians and political polemicists when dealing with literary texts, results in his taking too literally such a complex and ironic work as theUtopia. It simply cannot be assumed, as Pipes does, that More the author (as distinct from More the character, who takes part in a conversation with Raphael Hythloday, the mythical returnee from the island republic of Utopia in the less well known first part of the Utopia) is unequivocally endorsing the social and political principles of the imaginary Utopians. To write that More, a man with extensive legal and political experience, “believed that the abolition of money would cause all evils afflicting mankind to vanish” fails to take into account the sophistication of this shrewd and ironic Renaissance man.

Pipes notes that acquisitiveness has persisted throughout human history, from the time of hunters and food gatherers through that of farmers and on into that of urbanized and industrialized masses. There have always been possessions, whether simple weapons and tools, land, or traded commodities. Possessions become property when states formulate laws to secure this property. Monarchs might rule but over the centuries have understood they could not expect to own, that is, regard as their personal property, all that they rule. Furthermore, they have recognized that they could not appropriate the belongings of their subjects. Although Pipes stops short of claiming that the necessity of guaranteeing property rights is the sole reason for the emergence of national states, it is for him a paramount reason. He sees the right to...

(The entire section is 1989 words.)