In modern America, we are witnessing an attack on property rights that is unprecedented in the post-feudal Western world. While property used to be regarded as a sacred right, it is now regarded by many on the left simply as something that is nice to have, but can be taken by the government or looters if someone other than the owner has a greater “need” of it. What changed? What is the history of property and how does it relate to prosperity? Those are the questions that Tom Bethel sets out to answer in The Noblest Triumph.
Those are big questions and are ones that, I think, many of us would struggle to answer. As conservatives, we generally have a vague conception of why property is important and that it has some connection to the creation of prosperity.
But, like with many issues, that conception is relatively undeveloped. Because so many academics are cultural Marxists, we have not been taught why property is important. If anything, we have been taught the opposite- that private property is evil and needs to be redistributed to create a “fair” society.
Luckily for us, Tom Bethel’s The Noblest Triumph is a masterful defense of property rights and explanation of why they are a crucial feature of any prosperous society.
Summary of The Noblest Triumph by Tom Bethel
Bethel’s The Noblest Triumph covers a wide variety of subjects related to property rights and their import.
Part One of The Noblest Triumph is an introduction to his conception of property, property rights, and their relation to prosperity. He describes the blessings of property and how property, the law, and the economy are all intertwined. The economy cannot grow or function properly without property rights and property rights cannot exist if the law does not properly enshrine them and demand respect of them.
Then, in Part Two of The Noblest Triumph, Bethel gives his view on how property rights provide a solution to the free rider problem and help avert the tragedy of the commons. With a heavy dose of historical evidence, namely stories about the settlers of Jamestown and the Pilgrims (who tried collectivism but failed), Bethel gives an excellent explanation for why private ownership of land, resources, etc. is exactly what is needed to make society function and to get people working voluntarily.
Without property, men are turned into slaves, as Francsisco D’Anconia notes in his quote on money. With a legal system that enshrines property rights and ensures people that their labor will be rewarded and the fruits of their labor not confiscated, men will work voluntarily and create prosperity.
Similarly, in Part Two Bethel describes how people will overuse public resources but manage their own property in a sustainable way.
Part Three of The Noblest Triumph is a history lesson in how the Western world developed its respect for private property and property rights. From the Romans to the English, Bethel describes for the reader how past civilizations learned that public ownership of land, resources, and capital was far less efficient than private ownership.
In other words, capitalism is a better motivator than a whip. Over time, the Western world learned that lesson and, as a result, property rights became sacred, especially in 18th and 19th century England and America.
But then things began to change, which is what Part Four of The Noblest Triumph is about. “Philosophers” like Mill and Marx argued that public ownership of property was more moral than private ownership because of the “equality” that it would create.
While they were treated as lunatics at first because of that heresy, the West gradually came to listen to their ideas more and more as it forgot that private property is both sacred and a necessary condition for prosperity. Prosperous men and women began to curse the very facet of life that allowed them to live lives of prosperity that few, if any, before them could have dreamed of.
Change continued with the Soviet Union, which is the most important subject of Part Five of The Noblest Triumph. The Soviets and their virus of an ideology were premised on the destruction of private property and the idea that disallowing private ownership of resources and the means of production would somehow lead to economic growth and a more moral society. Of course, that was not the case.
As we found out after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet economy was fragile and experienced anemic growth. Similarly, the Soviet society was far from morally superior to those on the western side of the Iron Curtain and the stories from The Gulag Archipelago and The Case Against Socialism are a testament to that fact.
Part Six of The Noblest Triumph is different than the chapters preceding it- it is much more a section on legal theory regarding property rights and on the theory behind “to each his due,” which is as the corrupt, rotting heart of socialism.
In Part Seven of The Noblest Triumph, Bethel gets back to history and describes why the whole world is not as developed as America and Western Europe (hint: it has to do with the respect shown to property and the legal codification surrounding property rights in those regions of the globe). His main historical lessons on that point are about land reform around the world after World War II. In some regions, such as Korea and Japan, it went well because property rights were respected and the land reform enacted was simply used as a way to get farmers to feel more of a connection to their land.
But, in other regions and nations, such as South America and South Vietnam, land reform went far worse. Governments, pressured by the US and its foreign aid dollars to do so, stripped large landholders of their poverty and gave it to peasants that had no connection to the land and treated it as a stolen good rather than an earned reward.
Those programs eroded citizens’ faith in property rights and destroyed the middle class of most nations they were enacted in, so development and prosperity became impossible. We forgot that our prosperity was caused by our respect for property rights, so when we advised other nations, we gave them bad advice about how to develop their economies.
According to Bethel in The Noblest Triumph, we should have focused on established legal protections for property, not arbitrarily redistributing land and wealth.
Part Eight of The Noblest Triumph is again about historical examples of what happens when property rights are not respected. The two areas of the world he examines in it are Arabia and Ireland during the potato famine.
In Arabia, governments are often capricious and strip land or property from their subjects with little justification at all, if any. As a result, those subjects are unwilling to work hard to develop and improve the land. They know their business, pasture, or dwelling could be appropriated at any time for any reason, so they avoid doing the work to develop it.
During the time of the Roman Empire, much of North Africa was composed of arable land. It was the breadbasket of the empire. Now, much of it is a desert and the area of that desert is expanding year by year. Why is that? Well, according to Bethel, that change happened because of property rights.
The Romans generally respected property rights, so North African farmers had a reason to work hard and maintain their land, keeping it tillable and the desert away. Similarly, in Israel, property rights are respected, so farmers till the soil and keep the desert at bay; they know their land will not be expropriated by a tyrannical government, so they do the work necessary to keep it usable.
But, in the rest of modern North Africa and the Middle East, property rights are not respected. So, the subjects in those nations will not maintain what pastures and farms that exist; they have no reason to put in the work necessary to do so.
On a similar note, Bethel gives his explanation for the Irish potato famine in Part Eight of The Noblest Triumph. It was caused not by British adherence to laizzes faire principles, as Ferguson suggests in Empire, but instead by the opposite. The landholders of much of Ireland worried that their estates could be confiscated at any time by either angry Irishmen or the government in London, so they did little to incentivize development and improvement of the land and the potato blight was quite severe. Had they been secure in their right to their landholdings, the famine likely would have been far less severe, if it even occurred at all.
Part Nine of The Noblest Triumph is about current property rights issues, namely those related to intellectual property and property and the environment.
In passages that will make the blood of any true conservative or libertarian boil, Bethel gives example after example of how Americans have had their land stolen or devalued by a government that seeks to protect “endangered species” and the environment rather than looking out for the rights of its citizens. As a result, those owners both lose money and have no reason to maintain the land, which leads to worse outcomes for the endangered species and Americans. Property rights should not be nullified by the presence of some toad or bird.
In Part Ten of The Noblest Triumph, Bethel describes how the change in attitude towards property rights is creating a “feudal temptation” in America. What used to be held as sacred is now something that can be stripped away at the slightest pretense. Owners of property are no longer secure in it. The fruits of their labor can be stripped away by those with a greater “need,” their land can be taken if the government wants to protect an endangered salamander or build a public playground, and those who are the most successful and prosperous are demonized by socialists with no respect for property. Like in a feudal society, our property is no longer secure.
But, Part Ten of The Noblest Triumph is not wholly negative- American legal scholars and judges are rediscovering the import of property rights. Conservatives are fighting against ridiculous environmental regulations, most Americans abhor higher taxes, and most of us are infuriated when socialists want to take our property. Despite the “feudal temptation,” America might still hold property as sacred.
Part Eleven, the final section of The Noblest Triumph, is about property rights in China. A government that once stripped its citizens of everything has started to see the importance of allowing some degree of free enterprise and private ownership of the means of production and resources. While the situation there is far from perfect, it is improving. Or, at least it was at the time that the book was written.
Analysis of The Noblest Triumph by Tom Bethel
I found The Noblest Triumph to be, although dense in some sections, absolutely fascinating. While I have thought about and written about the relationship between capitalism and prosperity before, I have not really focused all that much on property rights.
Intuitively, it makes sense that they are a crucial ingredient for prosperity. But, as I have not been taught much about property rights and have not read a book that really focuses on them, I haven’t written about them much or included discussions of property rights in my articles on American abundance. I was one of those people Bethel describes early in The Noblest Triumph that respects property rights but has no material understanding of their import.
Reading The Noblest Triumph changed that. While reading it and thinking about the arguments Bethel makes in it, I started to grasp why he holds private ownership of property and laws enshrining property rights in such high esteem- they really are a common trend across all prosperous societies. Without them, no society can function and grow- men will not toil as slaves with the same sense of industry and purpose that they will as free men, even if they work in the most mundane and backbreaking of jobs. That point is shown well in the section on the economic impact of slavery on Virginia in Dominion of Memories.
But that is not all that I found fascinating about The Noblest Triumph. I also had to reexamine what I thought about taxation, regulation, and minimum wage laws while reading it.
Make no mistake, I’m not saying that I held any of those things in high esteem before reading The Noblest Triumph. I have written many times on why the minimum wage should not be raised, why taxation is theft and bad for the economy, and why regulations inhibit economic growth.
However, I had not conceived of those issues as property rights issues. Doing so is transformational.
Without thinking of the minimum wage as a property rights issues, we are simply arguing that it might stop some employers from hiring relatively inexperienced workers or lead to a rise in prices. Yes, those are issues to, but they are not the main issue. The main issue is that raising the minimum wage would be an attack on the property rights of the business owner- he or she has the right to set what percentage of earnings will be paid out as wages, not some bureacrat.
It is the same for discussions surrounding regulation and taxes. Each of those has negative externalities that we should note. But those negative externalities are not the main issue- property rights are. Progressive income taxes and wealth taxes unjustly strip earners of the fruits of their labor, just as regulations unjustly strip property owners of their ability to use their property as they see fit.
For those reasons, and many others, The Noblest Triumph is a book that I would absolutely recommend. Like Restoring the Lost Constitution, it can be dense at times. Much of it is philosophical or legal in nature, and that makes for some slow reading. But, if you read it, you will learn an incredible amount about why respect for property rights is what leads to prosperity. And knowledge of that is some of the best ammunition in the fight against the socialists in our midst that want to take our property.
Conclusion: Read The Noblest Triumph by Tom Bethel
The Noblest Triumph is a book that you need to read. Right now, we are facing Marxist domination of many aspects of life. They control universities. They are rioting in the streets and looting our stores. Marxists get on TV and demand the abolition of private property and defend rioting.
Much of that anger and disrespect shown towards private property is rooted in ignorance and conservative silence. Young Americans don’t get the argument in The Noblest Triumph that private property leads to prosperity because their teachers and professors never discussed that, and conservatives never bring up the defenses of property in The Noblest Triumph because property is rarely an issue brought up in connection with other issues like taxation, regulation, or the minimum wage.
That needs to change. If America wants to remain prosperous, it needs to rediscover the idea that private property is a sacred right. You can help bring about that change by reading The Noblest Triumph.