Assuming freedom to range abroad and a bit afield at year's end, the news this morning that the Chinese Communist Party is proposing to amend China's constitution to provide that "citizens' lawful private assets are inviolable" strikes me as an encouraging development. In any accounting of a "naughty and nice" list (see below), I would put this, at least for now, on the "nice" side of the ledger.
As Madison reminded us in his famous October 1788 letter to Jefferson, written bills of rights, or what he called "these parchment barriers", ultimately may not be efficacious in protecting individual rights. But he went on to say that delineating such rights in the written constitution nevertheless is useful because the "political truths" declared would "become incorporated with the national sentiment." And, when he introduced the bill of rights in the first Congress, he suggested that if rights are incorporated into the constitution, they have a tendency "to impress some degree of respect for them, to establish the public opinion in their favor."
Free speech is guaranteed in the Chinese constitution as well, and we know that is one individual right that the "parchment barrier" has not protected. But the Communist Party's embrace as a constitutional matter of the inviolability of private property is at least a step in the right direction. Presumably one that has Marx and Lenin flinching in their graves. While modern communications technologies can be used for ill as well as good, my bet is that Chinese leaders (and others like them) will find it increasingly difficult to suppress individual expression and the free flow of information in the age of the digital revolution.
As we know from our own American experiment, the protection of private property, including intellectual property, and the protection of individual rights, are both necessary prerequisites to advancing the cause of progress and freedom. Let's hope the announcement from China is a sign of real change to come, and not just some more ink on a "parchment barrier".