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A Theory of Fairness

        "Mine is better than ours."
—Benjamin Franklin

Tom Bethell, here as often before, uses sturdy common sense to challenge experts in their own field. In a controversial article many years ago, he dared to suggest that evolutionary biologists have exaggerated the evidence for Darwinism. Though roundly criticized by supporters of orthodoxy, Mr. Bethell manifested an uncanny ability to ask disconcerting questions.

That ability is continually on display in The Noblest Triumph. Here, he indicts economists because they have failed to set forth in detail an answer to what should be a basic question of their discipline: Under what institutions will a society prosper? Since the days of Adam Smith, economists have neglected to analyze property rights, which are, in Mr. Bethell's view, the key to economic success. Classical economists such as David Ricardo continued Smith's policy of taking property rights for granted, and with John Stuart Mill, the last of the classics, things got worse. Mill often criticized private property and seemed to look forward to the onset of socialism, although Mill's ambiguous prose mirrored his dithering on the issue. Of course, Karl Marx said a great deal about property; but his fervent denunciations contributed little to understanding. The Austrian school, including Ludwig von...

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