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
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.
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
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.
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on December 23, 2005.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
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