In more and more cases . . . politics and politicians not only contribute to the problem. They are the problem.

The Mother Earth News.

One common objection to private property is that it is an immoral system because it relies on selfishness. This is wrong. Most people define selfishness as an attitude of caring only for oneself and considering other people’s welfare of no importance. The argument for private property does not depend on people having such an attitude; it depends only on different people having different ends and pursuing them. Each person is selfish only in the sense of accepting and following his own perception of reality, his own vision of the good.

This objection is also wrong because it poses false alternatives. Under any institutions, there are essentially only three ways that I can get another person to help me achieve my ends: love, trade, and force.

By love I mean making my end your end. Those who love me wish me to get what I want (except for those who think I am very stupid about what is good for me). So they voluntarily, ‘unselfishly’, help me. Love is too narrow a word. You might also share my end not because it is my end but because in a particular respect we perceive the good in the same way. You might volunteer to work on my political campaign not because you love me but because you think that it would be good if I were elected. Of course, we might share the common ends for entirely different reasons. I might think I was just what the country needed, you that I was just what the country deserved.

The second method of cooperation is trade. I agree to help you achieve your end if you help me achieve mine. The third method is force. You do what I want or I shoot you.

Love — more generally, the sharing of a common end — works well, but only for a limited range of problems. It is difficult to know very many people well enough to love them. Love can provide cooperation on complicated things among very small groups of people, such as families. It also works among large numbers of people for very simple ends, ends so simple that many different people can completely agree on them. But for a complicated end involving a large number of people, producing this book, for instance, love will not work. I cannot expect all the people whose cooperation I need — typesetters, editors, bookstore owners, loggers, pulpmill workers, and a thousand more — to know and love me well enough to want to publish this book for my sake. Nor can I expect them all to agree with my political views closely enough to view the publication of this book as an end in itself. Nor can I expect them all to be people who want to read the book and who therefore are willing to help produce it. I fall back on the second method: trade.

I contribute the time and effort to produce the manuscript. I get, in exchange, a chance to spread my views, a satisfying boost to my ego, and a little money. The people who want to read the book get the book. In exchange, they give money. The publishing firm and its employees, the editors, give the time, effort, and skill necessary to coordinate the rest of us; they get money and reputation. Loggers, printers, and the like give their effort and skill and get money in return. Thousands of people, perhaps millions, cooperate in a single task, each seeking his own ends.

So under private property the first method, love, is used where it is workable. Where it is not, trade is used instead. The attack on private property as selfish contrasts the second method with the first. It implies that the alternative to selfish trade is unselfish love. But, under private property, love already functions where it can. Nobody is prevented from doing something for free if he wants to. Many people — parents helping their children, volunteer workers in hospitals, scoutmasters — do just that. If, for those things that people are not willing to do for free, trade is replaced by anything, it must be by force. Instead of people being selfish and doing things because they want to, they will be unselfish and do them at the point of a gun.

Is this accusation unfair? The alternative offered by those who deplore selfishness is always government. It is selfish to do something for money, so the slums should be cleaned up by a youth corps staffed via universal service. Translated, that means the job should be done by people who will be put in jail if they do not do it.

A second objection often made to a system of private property is that resources may be misallocated. One man may starve while another has more food than he can eat. This is true, but it is true of any system of allocating resources. Whoever makes the decision may make a decision I consider wrong. We can, of course, set up a government bureau and instruct it to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. That does not mean they will be fed and clothed. At some point, some person or persons must decide who gets what. Political mechanisms, bureaus and bureaucrats, follow their own ends just as surely as individual entrepreneurs follow theirs.

If almost everyone is in favor of feeding the hungry, the politician may find it in his interest to do so. But, under those circumstances, the politician is unnecessary: some kind soul will give the hungry man a meal anyway. If the great majority is against the hungry man, some kind soul among the minority still may feed him — the politician will not.

There is no way to give a politician power that can be used only to do good. If he gives food to someone, he must take it from someone else; food does not appear from thin air. I know of only one occasion in modern peacetime history when large numbers of people starved although food was available.[3] It occurred under an economic system in which the decision of who needed food was made by the government. Joseph Stalin decided how much food was needed by the inhabitants of the Ukraine. What they did not ‘need’ was seized by the Soviet government and shipped elsewhere. During the years 1932 and 1933, some millions of Ukrainians died of starvation. During each of those years, according to Soviet figures, the Soviet Union exported about 1.8 million tons of grain. If we accept a high figure for the number who starved — say, eight million — that grain would have provided about two thousand calories a day to each of them.

Yet there is something in the socialist’s objection to capitalism’s ‘misallocation’, something with which I sympathize aesthetically if not economically.

Most of us believe in our hearts that there is only one good and that ideally everyone should pursue it. In a perfect centrally planned socialist state everyone is part of a hierarchy pursuing the same end. If that end is the one true good, that society will be perfect in a sense in which a capitalist society, where everyone pursues his own differing and imperfect perception of the good, cannot be. Since most socialists imagine a socialist government to be controlled by people very like themselves, they imagine that it will pursue the true good, the one that they, imperfectly, perceive. That is surely better than a chaotic system in which all sorts of people other than the socialists perceive all sorts of other goods and waste valuable resources chasing them. People who dream about a socialist society rarely consider the possibility that some of those other people may succeed in imposing their ends on the dreamer, instead of the other way around. George Orwell is the only exception who comes to mind.

A third objection made to private property is that men are not really free as long as they need the use of other men’s property to print their opinions and even to eat and drink. If I must either do what you tell me or starve, the sense in which I am free may be useful to a political philosopher but it is not very useful to me.

That is true enough, but it is equally true of any system of public property — and much more important. It is far more likely that there will be one owner of all food if things are owned by governments than if they are owned by private individuals; there are so many fewer governments. Power is diminished when it is divided. If one man owns all the food, he can make me do almost anything. If it is divided among a hundred men, no one can make me do very much for it; if one tries, I can get a better deal from another.

[3] Before this chapter was written a second and even larger example had occurred, the famine during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” in which thirty to forty million are believed to have died, but I was not at the time aware of it.

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