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 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 we’ve ever had!”

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 we’ve ever had!”

Both men might have said, “Busiest day we’ve 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 State’s “customers” are captive; they can’t 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 doesn’t feel that way. What kind of “servants” have compulsory powers over their masters?

Most people don’t 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.

[Breaker quote: Will it keep on giving?]If the State owns something, you can’t own it. The State may permit you to use it, in a limited way, but it’s 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 isn’t really communism. So the question is whether Chinese Communism has ceased to exist or whether the new property rights are for real.

And it’s too soon to say. There’s 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 ownership.

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 everything.

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 regime’s 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 Mao’s 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.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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