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The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages

4.5 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0312223373
ISBN-10: 0312223374
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The phenomenal success of Western civilization and the remarkable economic expansion fueled by modern capitalism, says Tom Bethell, depend chiefly on the institution of private property and the development of secure property rights, yet this simple, striking idea is misunderstood by elite opinion leaders in the United States and around the world. Bethell, a reporter for the American Spectator, offers a history of property as an idea and a reality around the world. His sweeping narrative will appeal to fans of David Landes's The Wealth and Poverty of Nations and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Yet, in many crucial respects, The Noblest Triumph (the title comes from British philosopher Jeremy Bentham's line that property laws represent "the noblest triumph of humanity over itself") is better than both, displaying a keener understanding of human nature and of how incentives shape behavior. In a chapter sure to inspire controversy, Bethell argues that the Irish potato famines of the 1840s were due primarily to Ireland's lack of stable property rights in the 19th century. Full of astute observations and written with real clarity, The Noblest Triumph makes a unique and welcome contribution to the debate over why some countries thrive while others languish. --John J. Miller --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Marx preached the abolition of private property; utopian William Godwin inveighed against property and marriage as evils; and British socialist Robert Owen, who subsidized a failed collectivist community in New Harmony, Ind., in the 1820s, taught that private property warped human character. In their wake, argues American Spectator Washington correspondent Bethell, the concept of private property has been tarnished. In a signal contribution to the debate over capitalism's future, he contends that economic prosperity and social justice are possible only when property rights are widespread?and protected by a legal system that holds all equal before the law. These factors, he maintains, explain the vast gulf separating the world's prosperous nations and underdeveloped economies. All over the Third World, he notes, most people are permanently at risk of eviction, seizure, squatters' or police-state depredations. It follows, he argues, that the solution to poverty is not expropriation of land and redistribution of wealth, but rather, creating an infrastructure that will secure title rights to land, homes and businesses, making private enterprise feasible. A shrewd analyst of the abortive Soviet experiment, Bethell offers a novel analysis of the mid-19th-century Irish famine, arguing that shortsighted Anglo-Irish landlords acted against their own best interests by denying tenant farmers long-term leases. Yet Bethell struggles unsuccessfully to fit undemocratic, economically booming China into his framework, and at times sounds like an apologist for China, disputing the U.S. State Department's designation of it as an authoritarian state.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (October 20, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312223374
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312223373
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,516,432 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
James Bovard comments rightly that no institution in modern society has received as much "intellectual charity" as has the state. With The Noblest Triumph, Tom Bethell helps in a big way to reverse the unfortunate effects of this misbegotten charity. Bethell's book bursts with sound history, first-rate economics, and a subtle and profound philosophical understanding of human society. His is one of the clearest explanations of why the rule of law -- the unbiased application of legal constraints to even the mightiest citizens -- is necessary for freedom and prosperity. Bethell also masterfully lands solid blows against the (sadly widespread) notion that majoritarian democracy is a sound means of making law. Bethell's lesson, in brief, is that a system of decentralized private property rights is far superior to any form of centralized government at ensuring peaceful and productive social relations. While explaining in a variety of ways the role of property rights, The Noblest Triumph is far more than a book about property rights. Read this book and enjoy a first-rate intellectual feast.
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Format: Hardcover
Honestly, I read this book about a year and a half ago. Since, though, I've reread several sections of it. Bethell gives a fascinating account of the history of market, and not-so-marketlike, ideas. Yes, this book is a polemic of sorts and Bethell provides a few chapters explaining (very well) market theories like the tragedy of the commons and even explaining Marx fairly accurately. So the book DOES have a bias, but the research and statements within are very accurate.
The two chapters that stood out to me were one near the beginning, showing us how America originated as a quasi-capitalist system of personal icentive. Second, and most interesting of all, was a full chapter devoted to the entirely strange story of Robert Owen and his New Melody utopia. Long and short, Owen was a millionare turned socialist (notice its only the very rich and very poor that are socialists?) who lost his bankrole on a bizzare utopian scheme, wherein he bought land in the U.S., got volunteers, and lost it all some years later because the workmen turned lazy. The reason I highlight this chapter is because as important as the facts of New Melody are, they are seldom collected in book form (at least not ones in print). Here, Bethell devotes AN ENTIRE CHAPTER to the catastrophe. Buy this book, if only for that.
Still, even without that chapter, this book is a goody. Marx and Mill are discussed, the soviet union experiment, even contemporary issues like property and the environment, and intellectual property rights are discussed. Overall, a good book that will get the unconvinced thinking and get the convinced even more convinced. Convinced?
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The point in Tom Bethell's excellent book that struck me most was his discussion of experiments in abolishing private property. Well, yes, we all know that with the exception of religious orders, they have uniformly come to bad ends--from the Oneida community to the Israeli kibbutzim to the Soviet Union. The striking point was that these socialist utopian communities and theories also attempted to abolish religion and the family.
Now, you don't have to be an anthropologist or a theologian to suspect that these utopians were in their common hostility identifying fundamental elements of human nature, or as the Founders put it, that men are endowed by their creator with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
As the discussion of utopian theories and communities indicates, the Noblest Triumph is an intellectual history of the idea of property as well as a history of the human consequences of the ways different societys have made it more or less secure. Bethell makes clear that the assault on property is far from over. In fact the age of private property has been in decline since about the time that Jeremy Benthem called it man's "noblest triumph", as theorist after theorist has tried to deconstruct it and separate it from its roots in human nature. Marx, of course, declared against historical evidence that the legal system was inevitably determined by economic relationships, and then proposed that economic relationships be reformed by changing the law.
In this respect Bethell is, especially for a writer, curiously soft on protecting intellectual property--a topic that is in the information age only in the early stages of development.
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Format: Paperback
This book focuses on the issue of Private Property, a concept that rarely recieves attention, even in pro-capitalist literature. That is the book's strength, a solid summary on the negatives of public ownership and the liberty that flows from private property. "Where private property is nonexistent, selfishness has free reign."

If there is a negative, it is that the book jumps around a bit. There are other books that I think do as good of a job (if not better stylistically) of addressing the failures of socialism (Re: Heaven on Earth by Muravchik) and there are other books that provide a positive prescription for world poverty via private property (Mystery of Capital by DeSoto). This book straddles those two, overlaps them, and thus is a fine companion piece.
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