Pipes on Private Property

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I met Richard Pipes at a Mont Pelerin Meeting in Chattanooga on 9/19/03. I had previously sent him my review of his book, and asked him what he thought of it. He said he never received it. So, I sent it to him again:

Block, Walter. 2002. Review of Pipes, Richard, Property and Freedom: The story of how through the centuries private ownership has promoted liberty and the rule of law, New York: Knopf, 2000, in The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring 2002), pp. 97-101.

What follows are several letters, which I label Pipes.1, Pipes.2, and Block.1 and Block.2, etc.Pipes.1:

—–Original Message—–
Sent: Saturday, October 04, 2003 8:19 AM
To: WALTERBLOCK@cba.loyno.edu
Subject: Re: book review
Dear Walter:

Thank you for the copy of your review of Property and Freedom which I would otherwise not have seen.

It is, indeed, a novel experience for me to be criticized for not being severe enough in condemning the welfare state since many other reviewers have criticized me for being too severe. Indeed, Chapter 5 was the only one to be subjected to criticism.

Let me say at the outset that you praise Chapters 1 through 4, and take me to task only for pages 225-281, i.e. on fifth of the book. In view of this, “one cheer for property rights” may be a bit skimpy.

Theoretically, much of what you say is correct. And if we lived in a world of theory, then you be altogether right. But we live in a world of compromises in which decisions are made not on the basis of “yes” or “no” but “more” or “less.” Taxes are a violation of property rights (although you do not refer to them); military conscription with the view of sending me into combat where I may be killed is a violation of my right to life. Our entire existence in society is a series of compromises in which we have to make concessions that run contrary to our basic rights. Our task is to keep such concessions to a minimum.

It is simply unrealistic — dogmatic — to ignore the fact that in a society as wealthy as ours we can watch people live without a roof over their head and without food in their stomach because to provide them would transgress on our property rights. My purpose in writing Chapter 5 was to make readers aware that the welfare state infringes on our property rights and thus on our freedoms and by so doing, help keep the state’s encroachments within narrow limits. Your approach would convince only a tiny number of libertarians and thus have no effect either on public opinion or on state policy, leading to ever greater encroachments on our rights.

Regards, RP

Block.1:

—–Original Message—–
From: WALTER BLOCK [mailto:WALTERBLOCK@cba.loyno.edu]
Sent: Sunday, October 05, 2003 8:59 PM
To: ‘RPIPES’
Subject: RE: book review
Dear Richard:

I guess we’ll have to continue to agree to disagree.

In my view, the reason “people live without a roof over their head and without food in their stomach” is not because of property rights, but due to their absence. And the reason that this occurs relatively rarely in this country, compared to others, is because we have more property rights than most places. You seem to think, in sharp contrast, that the best way to feed, cloth and shelter the poor is to deny property rights. I think your view is tragically erroneous.

Of course we live in a world of compromise. But when we write, we need not compromise. We can tell the total complete and unvarnished truth. I don’t think it is “dogmatic” to do so. I don’t think that “Our task is to keep such concessions to a minimum.” I think our task, in writing, is, again, to tell the total complete and unvarnished truth. If people like you, who seem to know the truth, will not tell it, due to a desire to compromise, what hope is there? Do we write to “convince others?” I thought only politicians did that, not scholars.

Just because you spend only 1/5 of your book compromising, and refusing to tell the complete and total truth, does not mean that my characterization of your position as “one cheer” for property rights is too harsh. I don’t think you have to be exactly proportionate in matters of this sort.

It’s too bad we didn’t have much of a chance to talk at the Mont Pelerin meeting. I would have enjoyed it. I can’t speak for the editor of the journal in which my review of your book appeared of course, but I would be surprised if he would not welcome a critical comment of yours on this review.

Best regards,

Walter

Pipes.2

Sent: Sunday, October 05, 2003 10:26 PM

“Your approach would convince only a tiny number of libertarians and thus have no effect either on public opinion or on state policy, leading to ever greater encroachments on our rights.”

Similar to the perennial mistake of the “activist” libertarian–to confuse rhetorical success and strategical objectives with the truth of an argument or position.

Pipes.3

—–Original Message—–
From: RPIPES
Sent: Monday, November 17, 2003 7:37 AM
To: WALTERBLOCK@cba.loyno.edu
Subject: (no subject)

Dear Walter:

Let me respond to the two critical points raised in your letter to me of October 4.

When you deal with public matters you have to be realistic otherwise your advice is pointless: the “truth” in such cases is not an abstraction as it is when one deals with historical or scientific facts but a recommendation. It is not even “truth” in the ordinary sense of the word but wisdom: advice that must combine idealism with pragmatism. Thus, to change the focus, if you deal with crime you cannot demand that it be abolished but find ways of reducing it. This is a kind of “compromise,” if you will, but compromise with reality which is our mistress.

How can you say that hunger and homelessness in this country are due to the “absence of property rights”? Surely, we have them! When people go hungry and lack a roof over their head it may be due a variety of causes: personal misfortune, underdeveloped intelligence, etc etc. I nowhere blamed property rights for such a situation, but simply argued that property rights have sometimes to be bent.

By all means, “blog” our exchange if you so desire.

Regards,

RP

Block.2

Dear Richard:

Some abolitionist in the 19th century once said something to the effect that he never thought that abolition of slavery would come right away, but he would never cease advocating just that. In like manner, I don’t for a moment think that we can bring about a libertarian society over night (I certainly agree with you on this). But “compromise in theory is perpetuity in practice”: if we don’t even advocate what is right, we’ll NEVER bring about justice.

Yes, I think it would be great if we moved immediately to a free society; to end all crime, forthwith; to bring about a total and complete regime of economic freedom and private property rights, right away. If there were a button that could be pushed, a la Leonard Read, that would bring that result about instantaneously, I’d blister my finger pushing that button.

I think that the best way to bring that about, as a practical matter, is to hold high this banner. Not to compromise on it, as you have done. Being “realistic,” e.g., compromising with the truth, that is, to be blunt, lying, cannot be justified in my opinion either on moral or pragmatic grounds.

I do not deny that “personal misfortune, underdeveloped intelligence,” etc., contribute to “hunger and homelessness in this country,” of which there is very little, relatively speaking, since we have more economic freedom than most nations. See on this my Gwartney, James, Robert Lawson and Walter Block. 1996. Economic Freedom of the World, 1975-1995 Vancouver, B.C. Canada: the Fraser Institute. But surely you will admit that our rent control and socialist agricultural programs contribute to “hunger and homelessness in this country,” will you not?

I hope and trust our paths will cross once again, and we can wrestle with these important issues.

Best regards,

Walter

6:26 pm on December 3, 2003