The Economically Illiterate Have No Property Rights

Jesse Walker of Reason Magazine points to a story in Forbes by Megha Bahree, about the Indian government seizing peasant land for use by corporations like Tata Steel.  In response, Maoist guerrillas, supported by the peasants, are waging war on the government.   “The upshot,” Walker writes:  “The state has been seizing villagers’ land on behalf of well-connected companies, allowing the rebels to sell themselves as the protectors of the peasantry.”

The war is quite ugly, amounting to a full-blown counter-insurgency operation — with all that entails, including brutal reprisals against villagers suspected of supporting the insurgency.  In the Gompad massacre, for instance, the sixteen killed included a middle-aged couple and their 25-year-old daughter.  The daughter had a knife stuck in her head and her breasts sliced off.  Her toddler survived — with several fingers missing.

As Bahree notes — probably to the surprise of many Forbes readers — that stealing land from peasants to benefit big business is a violation of free market principles.  “In principle there ought to be an economic answer to the economic question of whether a steel mill is a better use of land than a farm. If the mill is so valuable, why can’t its owner offer the peasants an irresistible sum to leave? But here the market takes a back seat behind politics and thuggery.”

I can just imagine Thurston Howell’s reaction:  “A free market means we have to pay for stuff ourselves and risk our own money?  Egad!  Lovey, those free marketers sound like a bunch of commies!”

But especially noteworthy is the reaction from the sorts of people on the Right who talk most about “free markets.”  One reader at Forbes, for example, commented that “the Maoists are no better,” because “for the most part its activities are criminal.”

And then this clincher from the same reader:  “Also Can in India afford to hold back Industries that will give employment to thousands directly (many more indirectly) because 1750 families have to be moved? Is that Justice? Proper Rehabilitation and compensation is a must. The activists will better serve the locals by ensure that they get proper compensation and are rehabilitated appropriately instead of opposing industries blindly.”

Another Forbes reader writes:  “The overly populist tone of the article pitting billionaires against Maoists is a little simplistic. If you are sitting on substantial deposits of iron ore, coal, bauxite or other precious minerals, I think the government has a right to acquire that land, but only after paying you adequate compensation.”

Another reader comment sounds oddly familiar, given some of the usual suspects’ responses to my own work published in free market periodicals:  “Who would have thought, Forbes publishing an article supporting Communists/Socialists and basically Terrorists….”  The Indian government, he says,  “should do what USA and China does all the time, apply Emminent Domain in such cases and get it over with. Trying to convince farmers/NGOs/Communists to give up land for factories is a futile excerise.”

Meanwhile, at Reason, a reader responds to Walker’s “upshot” by saying:  “There is no upshot. Maoists are not for property rights.”

So what it all boils down to is that, when the beneficiaries of theft are large corporations, the victims are peasants with traditional land tenure rights, and the people who resist it are Maoists, property rights don’t apply.  The peasants’ right not to be robbed isn’t really that big a deal because, after all, they’re “economic illiterates” who’ve been led astray by Maoist ideas instead of the one, true, free market faith.

But so what?  What difference does it make what they believe, or whether they can demonstrate a working knowledge of Human Action by Ludwig von Mises? Since when has that become a criterion for being entitled to keep what you own?

And for that matter, why wouldn’t someone in their position be skeptical of free market ideas?  Think about it.  Just about every time you hear the words “free market” being used by politicians on C-SPAN, by talking heads on cable news, or by pundits on op-ed pages, it’s being used by the kind of people who are likely to take the side of Tata against the villagers.  If all I knew about the “free market” was that it was what the people robbing me were in favor of, and the people helping me fight were Maoists, I’d probably be a Maoist myself.

Right now, the words “free market,” for the vast majority of people whose main source of livelihood is their labor, are just another way of saying “sweatshops” and “corporate serfdom.”  That’s probably because most of the folks they hear on TV and read on the editorial page celebrating “free markets” really ARE for sweatshops and corporate serfdom.  When there are enough professing free marketers who side with peasants against the big corporations trying to rob them, instead of instinctively reacting in a manner precisely opposite, maybe that will change.

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