A man has but poor encouragement to bestow labor and expense upon a piece of ground, in which he has no secure property; and when neither himself, nor his posterity, will, probably, ever derive any permanent advantage from it.

—Joseph Priestley. An Essay on the First Principles of Government and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty, 1771.

The decreasing relative prosperity of the United States compared to China is entirely proportionate to the altering relative respect those two countries have shown toward private property. During its first 150 years, the government of the United States interfered very little with the property of its citizens. The Americans enjoyed the fruits of this liberty and meanwhile the Chinese grovelled in subservient terror, either starving to death or barely able to feed themselves because the communists confiscated most of what they produced and prohibited the ownership of private property. But today the boot is on the other foot—China continually increases the respect it shows for private property (albeit from a very low base), while America and the rest of the Western world tax themselves mercilessly to bestow health care, aged pensions, subsidies, bounties, public housing, public schooling, student loans, overseas aid and other communal benefits. Anyone who wants a free ride can add to the tax burden merely by manipulating a few politicians. So irresponsible is the vote-buying largesse that it outstrips the ability of the living to pay for it, so even the property of the unborn is expropriated through vast national debt.

The millions who starved to death in the Soviet Union and Maoist China, the hundreds of thousands who are starving today in North Korea, the stunted economic growth in the West today (despite the benefits of ever-improving technology), could all have been avoided if it was accepted that:

  1. the root cause of all prosperity is work, and
  2. from the moment the first Neolithic picked up a hoe, humans can only be motivated to work if they have security of property.

Thus the more security of property there is, the more prosperity there is. In fact the whole science of economics can be summed up in the old English maxim, ‘To each his own.’ As Herbert Spencer explained:

Is the institution of private property expedient? It is. Man’s happiness greatly depends upon the satisfaction of his temporal wants. The fruits of the earth are a necessary means of satisfying those wants. Those fruits can never be produced in abundance without cultivation. That cultivation will never prevail without the stimulus of certain possession. No man will sow when others may reap. We have abundant proof of this, in the history of every savage nation. (The Proper Sphere of Government, 1842–1843.)

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove