In The Noblest Triumph, Tom Bethell pronounces a sweeping judgment on more than two thousand years of history: when "property is privatized, and the rule of law is established, economies will prosper and civilization will blossom."
He begins this ambitious argument by tracing its origins to ancient Greece, where Aristotle up-held private property against Plato's collectivist alternative. All the "progressive" social experiments that sought to "move beyond" the need for private property have – Bethell shows – been miserable failures. From early religious settlements in 17th century Virginia and Massachusetts, to the 19th century debacle of Robert Owen in Harmony, Illinois (the "Starnesville" of the 1800s), to the Soviet Union in this century – the absence of property rights explains the disasters of socialist schemes.
One of the most appealing features of the book is its wealth of concrete examples. For example, the author explains the role of Ireland's weak system of property rights in triggering the infamous "Potato Famine" of the mid-19th century.
The same agricultural blight struck Holland and Scotland – nations with more secure property rights – with little or no effect. And he ventures the theory that the lack of private property contributed to the desertification of much of North Africa(which in Roman times had been able to support agriculture).
Throughout The Noblest Triumph, Bethel cites a vast range of advocates of private property – from Aristotle to Adam Smith, from Bastiat to Hayek, from Ayn Rand to Richard Posner. The eclectic result is that Bethell tends to favor a defense of capitalism that owes somewhat more to utilitarianism than to a morality of individualism. Nevertheless, this is a compelling presentation of the role of property rights in history. Bethell's work provides a wealth of "intellectual ammunition" for advocates of capitalism.
This review is courtesy of and copyright © by the Ayn Rand Bookstore.