Book Review: Progress and Property Rights: From the Greeks to Magna Carta to the Constitution

When those on the left wish to dismiss the criticisms of conservatives, libertarians or classical liberals, they will often attempt to paint their opponents as being overly focused on economics. Those on the political right are told that not everything can be reduced to dollars and cents or that markets work better in theory than in practice. On occasion, a critique of trickle-down economics will be trotted out, perhaps with a dismissive reference to Ayn Rand added for good measure.

Such accusations are in part an attempt at constructing straw men by those who do fully appreciate the lessons that can be learned from economics, but such criticisms also touch on an important truth.

Those who support classical liberalism carry a heavy burden. The defenders of limited government are called upon to explain how we can believe in freedom given the long history of mistreatment of women, blacks, Jews and a litany of other groups – despite the fact that governments usually commit the most egregious actions against minorities. In order to effectively make the case for the traditional liberal values of limited government, civic freedoms and property rights, it is important to have a well-rounded understanding of subjects such as economics, politics, philosophy and history. If we are not well versed in a wide range of subjects, we leave ourselves open to arguments that reflect a stunning susceptibility to Hayek’s fatal conceit – perhaps central planners have made mistakes in the past, but today, with the right person in charge, things will be different.

In Progress and Property Rights, Walker Todd provides a historical overview of the evolution of property rights that stretches from the ancient Greeks to the modern West. As those familiar with the work of Hernando de Soto will know, one of the biggest puzzles for development economists is how to nurture rule of law and property rights in developing countries. While this book does not provide any magic bullets, it does help to illustrate just how long it took us to develop the property rights framework so many benefit from, yet seldom think about.

Todd’s biography reveals an extensive interdisciplinary background – now serving as a research fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research, his education includes a law degree and an Ivy League Ph.D. in French – which is certainly reflected in this book. He displays an impressive ability to weave together a large number of subjects in a relatively short book while maintaining a cohesive and compelling narrative. We learn how Roman conceptions of property influenced European law in the Middle Ages and how the Norman invasion affected the British legal system. Familiar figures such as Hobbes and Locke are connected to more obscure groups such as the British Levellers of the 17th century, a political faction whose ideas served as an influence on the more famous thinkers who followed them. Each page is packed with insights into history, economics and political thought.

The brevity of this book (at fewer than 100 pages, it is described by the publisher as an Economic Bulletin) means that it can easily be read in one day or broken up over a weekend. This may help it to reach a wider audience, as a book that does not demand too much time from its readers can be more widely accessible and more suitable for inclusion on a university course book list.

But while this book contains plenty of interesting information, the reader may be left wishing that some of the topics were given more extensive treatment. In particular, Todd seems to gloss over the last 100 or so years, and he restricts his later analysis to the United States when a comparison between America and other nations that share its Anglo-Saxon heritage would make for an interesting addition.

A list of suggested further readings might help to solve this problem, but such inclusions often overwhelm the interested reader with dozens of titles and no place to start. Perhaps a better suggestion would be for Todd to use this publication as the basis for a full-length book. He certainly has an impressive knowledge of the history of property rights and this important topic needs more attention, especially from those who are able to write in a style that is appropriate for a general audience.

This book certainly contributes to our understanding of the Western world’s liberal traditions, and it is well worth the time required to read it.

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