A Commie Christmas Gift
December 23, 2003
Christmas this year is brightened by the news that
nominally Communist China has taken a big step toward enshrining private
property rights in its constitution. For some reason it reminds me of a
Christmas story told by the late Leonard Read, a champion of property
rights and market economics.
One year, on the day before
Christmas, Read greeted his heavily laden mailman and asked him how he
was doing. The man groaned, Worst day weve ever
Later that day Read went to a
local store for a bit of last-minute shopping. It was packed. He asked the
merchant how he was doing. The man beamed, Best day weve
Both men might have said,
Busiest day weve ever had! But to the government
employee, busiest translated as worst, while to the private
businessman, it translated as best. One experienced the public as a
burden, the other welcomed it as customers, meaning profits.
There, in a nutshell, is the
difference between the outlook of the State and that of the free man. The
States customers are captive; they cant take
their business elsewhere if they are dissatisfied. But the free man,
dealing with other free men, has every incentive to please, under the
maxim The customer is always right.
Think of that story the next time
you wait in a long, slow line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. In
theory, public property belongs to all of us, and State
employees are our public servants. But it doesnt feel
that way. What kind of servants have compulsory powers
over their masters?
Most people dont fully
grasp the relation between liberty and property. When you own something,
you have real power over it. Nobody can use it or take it from you without
your consent. You can put your own price on it or refuse to sell it. You are,
in a word, free.
State owns something, you cant own it. The State may permit you
to use it, in a limited way, but its nonsense to say that State
property belongs to all of us. If the State owns everything,
as under Communist regimes, it owns you too, and can use its economic
power to punish dissenters, even to starve them, because everybody
depends on the State for everything, including food. In a free society, the
dissenter may go on feeding himself. Stalin understood this when he
starved millions of Ukrainians for refusing to submit to the Soviet State.
This is why the news from China
is encouraging. Communism with property rights isnt really
communism. So the question is whether Chinese Communism has ceased to
exist or whether the new property rights are for real.
And its too soon to say.
Theres a catch: the proposed amendment says that private
property obtained legally shall not be violated. That may reserve to
the State the power to define legally, which could amount to
arbitrary enforcement, or even outright nullification, of the right of
One of the virtues of property is
that it makes property owners independent of the State. But it looks as if
the Chinese rulers want to make ownership something less than a right
something merely permitted by the State, rather than the moral
due of the individual. Ultimately, the State may continue to own
Pure communism, without
ownership and its incentives, has never worked. Ever since Lenin,
communist rulers have always had to make compromises with market
forces. Black markets in the Soviet Union probably prevented the
regimes collapse, especially in the form of the grey
market, officially illegal but usually winked at by the State.
The Chinese rulers have
recognized this for some time. Since the death of Mao Zedong, their
dogmatic and disastrous founder, they have given increasing latitude to
market forces, and the result has been an economic boom. Even
Maos memory has been debunked and partly repudiated.
An odd fate for a Founding
Father, both honored and disregarded rather like Thomas Jefferson
in reverse. Jefferson still enjoys lip service here, but our rulers ignore
his principles, which, taken seriously, would cripple their power.
For the moment, it appears that
the Communist regime has given its subjects an odd Christmas gift:
capitalism. Time will tell whether this means genuine property rights
the gift that really keeps on giving or another merely
strategic retreat from Red dogma.