I nearly fell off my chair in a recent radio debate when the host put it to me with levelling confidence: Isn’t the problem with giving poor black South Africans rights to property that they might just go and sell it the next morning? If this was an invitation, as I sensed it was, to dispense with highfalutin principles and get to grips with reality instead, it struck me that when I replied, “Why on earth shouldn’t they?” I ran the risk of seeming to want to change the subject. Yet, of course, the greatest delusion is that land reform is somehow detached from household economics, or that the benefits of reform, whether in the countryside or city, derive from anything but people’s access to tradeable assets. The perceived “risk” of the poor actually having assets, and trading them, points to the least appealing of all the impulses that bind much of the intelligentsia; their enthusiasm for the idea that the poor need to be told how to live (and the rich, how not to). On the back of su...

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