Books: A perfect day on Main Street, USA

Property and Freedom by Richard Pipes Harvill, pounds 22.50, 328pp: John Gray argues that Cold War cliches tell us nothing useful about conflicts in tomorrow's world
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CAN THE United States, as it was before the New Deal, be deduced from first principles? Richard Pipes's Property and Freedom is one of a number of books written by right-wing Americans which aims to do just that. In these compendious surveys of the history of freedom, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, John Locke, " the Judeo-Christian tradition" and - not infrequently - the Deity are invoked to establish the universal principle that personal freedom exists only in a regime of unencumbered private property and strictly limited government. Curiously, in practically every example of this genre, the epoch in which this supposedly universal truth is most closely approximated invariably turns out to be the US before F D Roosevelt, with Eisenhower's America usually coming a poor second.

Property and Freedom is only the most recent in a stream of books that includes Charles Murray's Losing Ground and Francis Fukuyama's The Great Disruption. All advance an interpretation of history in which it culminates, or terminates, in the US, and in which world history is little more than a mirror for the anxieties and prejudices that have seized US conservatives over the past 10 years. In all of them, the trundling paraphernalia of academic references to Aristotle on mixed constitutions, Locke's theory of property, or whatever, serves merely as a preface to their real content - a narrow-eyed polemic against the evils currently most exercising the rancour of the American Right.

Pipes begins with a section on "Definitions", in which he pronounces canonically: "Freedom does not include the so-called `right' to public security and support (such as implied in the slogan phrases `freedom from want' and `the right to housing') which infringe the rights of others since it is they who have to pay for them." This claptrap sets the tone for much that follows. It would be tedious to summarise the argument in detail. For the most part, it is mind-numbingly familiar.

In Pipes's account, as in innumerable others from the same stable, private property and personal freedom are simple, negative ideas. Private property means the exclusive right to control and dispose of assets and freedom signifies the licence to do what one wishes subject only to the liberty of others - that is, the absence of coercion. Pipes seems to think it self-evident that once these definitions are accepted, it follows inexorably that the freest society is one founded on private property and minimum government.

But Isaiah Berlin, this century's most thoughtful defender of a negative ideal of freedom - and a thinker, perhaps predictably, not mentioned by Pipes - maintained that a welfare state, and indeed socialism, can be defended in terms of negative freedom. Berlin was undoubtedly right, if only because the institution of private property itself rests on coercion and so limits freedom even as it promotes it.

Pipes's argument against welfare rights is equally flimsy. There is no logical gulf between negative and positive rights. Protecting people against violence and breach of contract and ensuring that they have access to education, medical care and housing are very much on a par with one another. Each requires the expenditure of the state's resources, and each can be justified as advancing negative freedom - the freedom to act as one pleases.

The notion that a negative account of freedom supports Pipes's anachronistic ideal of minimal government is a canard. Once that confusion has been cleared up, conceptual analysis is not a great deal of use in thinking about which regime of property is best for freedom. For that, we need history.

Richard Pipes is justly famous for his studies of Tsarist Russia and the Bolshevik regime. His books The Russian Revolution and Russia under the Bolshevik Regime show - conclusively, to my mind - that the totalitarian repression by the Stalinist regime was not a deformation of Lenin's original project but a natural development. Given this seminal work, it should not be surprising that the best sections here try to account for Russia's almost unbroken history of despotic government.

In effect, Pipes explains Russia's long history of tyranny by its lack of a proper feudal system. In feudalism, the power of the monarch is limited by the landed nobility, but Russia developed what Pipes calls "patrimonialism": the Tsar not only ruled but practically owned the country. Russia's tradition of absolutism is a consequence of failure to develop an independent aristocracy.

Pipes's account of the sources of Russian despotism is not notably original, but interesting and plausible. The same cannot be said of the rest of his potted version of world history, which is a ragbag of vulgar whiggism and right-wing cliches. England and the origins of parliamentary government, half a dozen pages on continental Europe, then we reach the real point of the book - a drearily predictable tirade against welfare entitlements, affirmative action and school busing.

Pipes presents a view of history as a struggle of competing doctrines whose provenance is clearly in the Cold War. It may have contained a grain of truth when the world divided into ideological blocs. It is a misleading irrelevance now, when those ideologies have largely disappeared. The struggle over economic systems belongs in the past.

Today's conflicts, and those we are likely to face, do not come from rival ideologies. Their sources are the same as they have been throughout practically all of human history. They are religion, ethnicity and the pressure of competition for scarce natural resources. These conflicts are not best viewed through the squinting ideologies of the Cold War.

Property and Freedom does not add anything much to human understanding. It is a symptom of the disorientation of the American right-wing mind, as it struggles in vain to comprehend a world in which the ideological categories of the Cold War have become redundant.

John Gray is professor of European thought at the LSE