Government limitation and enforcement of the duties of property ownership is one of the foundation stones of a good society, not an economic lever.
by Phil Hall
Rather than imagining they are powerful citizens, the ultra rich prefer to believe that they are naturally unconstrained and owe little to individual states. They fantasise they roam the world like Captain Nemo, and assume they have far more rights than duties. But they are only allowed to own what they own by our collective grace.
Everyone lives in a society. It is not possible to become wealthy outside society. The society regulates what people can and cannot own, and what duties those people who own property have to that society. If a person or corporation accumulates too much wealth, then they have done so by skimming off other people’s labour, or their forebears have. Society shouldn’t tolerate the theft and accumulation of other people’s labour by the few.
If a French aristocrat or a great land baron killed the peasants and stole their land, or colonialists conquered and stole the land of the people they colonised – Israel and South Africa and The USA and Australia come immediately to mind. Or a big developer lobbies local and national government and pays bribes and offers inducements to officials, they acquire land and wealth by force. The basis of ownership, hitherto, has been through the violent imposition of ownership by a minority. Therefore, legitimacy and the legitimacy of all forms of ownership can only be expressed and endorsed by a properly constituted democratic state, uncorrupted by the influence of powerful elites, where there is a representative economic, as well as political, democracy.
This need for control of property rights conditioned by the need to ensure the public interest is clearly acknowledged in the European Convention on Human Rights which states that:
(1) Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law. (2) The preceding provisions shall not, however, in any way impair the right of a State to enforce such laws as it deems necessary to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest or to secure the payment of taxes or other contributions or penalties.
The problem lies in the very narrow definition of ‘public interest‘ that gives corporations a legalistic work around and allows them to send their superprofits to hide funk holes in The Caribbean in order to avoid paying a fair amount of taxation, or a definition of public interest that has loopholes in it that allow, for example, water companies to pour human waste in huge quantities into British rivers and the sea.
At the root of the problem of modern capitalist societies are the concepts governing property rights and duties. There should be severe limits set to what can be owned and what cannot be owned. Effectively, nothing is ever really fully privately owned. All property is on loan from a legitimately formed, democratic state. You may buy your island from a country, but you are not buying a country.
Instead of simply re-nationalisating, (though a few re-nationalisations would be nice) we should reformulate property law. The problem with nationalisation is the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons. In other words, if no one owns something – fishing areas in international waters, for example – then that resource is exploited and exhausted. On a collectivised farm, everything goes to pot and no one takes full responsibility for maintenance.
What is the value of property ownership itself? Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was wrong when he said ‘Property is theft.’ Property is not just theft. Clearly, there is some value to giving people property rights. Property owners look after their property. Property ownership generates value; call it the value of good husbandry. When you complete a transaction, the good husbandry of property has a price tag. It is called Goodwill and people will pay well over the odds for it. Good ownership creates identity, cohesiveness, and permanence. It is worthwhile.
But, ultimately, all property is merely on loan from a legitimate national democratic state. At root, property is is not an inalienable right. It is a right that depends on the agreement of others. Ownership is tolerated and the only permanent ownership – in the people’s name – can be ownership by a democratic – state so long as that state lasts. Property changes hands when the state changes hands. From a constitutional monarchy to a republic, for example. After a revolution, the property of the aristocrats returns to the people. In Cuba, the casinos and brothels became hospitals and schools.
The public highway, the coastline, beaches, land held in trust. These are examples of things which should be owned only by the state and not by individuals or corporations. Individuals and corporate ownership would create privileged access and bottlenecks. It would be deeply unfair.
Limit the right to own property
Limit the right to property and expand the notion of the duties of property holders fully. There are effective ways of doing this.
Essentially, property ownership is a civil right, like other civil rights. However, contrast the way the rights and duties of property holders are handled with the way other civil rights and duties are handled. The duties of property owners seem far too ‘negotiable’ and flexible.
Parliament should have more to say on the duties and limitations on ownership. Property ownership should be treated as other citizens’ rights and duties are treated. The duties of people who own land, animals, machines, buildings and other resources should be based on principles of social good, they should not be bargaining chips to attract capital and generate investment.
The right to avoid paying taxes or to pollute the land, rivers and sea should not be framed in terms of ‘deregulation’ and ‘incentivisation’. The way the government enforces the duty of property ownership is one of the foundation stones of a good society, not simply an economic lever.
There must be severe limits on ownership. The reality of ownership should operate more like a renewable license. For example. If you own a certain number of shares in a company, then you should be licensed to own them. You should only be allowed to own a certain amount of shares in a defined set of circumstances. In this way, no one would be able to become unfairly, stinking rich.
Use this concept of extending a license, for example, in order to limit and regulate speculative activity in the financial and commodity markets. Curtail property rights that are overextended. Link property ownership much more closely to civic responsibility and, operating in the public interest, rescind property rights when there is evidence of civic irresponsibility.
The right to property ownership is not inalienable, it is a civil right and to own something carries with it a civic duty. Your car must be licensed and in good working order. It should not pollute. You need to be licensed to drive it. You must follow the highway code.
Property ownership raises moral questions. Certain levels of ownership cannot be licensed. This has always been the case, but it is a matter of degree. Democratically elected governments should adopt a new far tougher approach to the rights and duties of property ownership.
Treat property ownership more like other citizens’ rights and duties and reformulate them in terms of licenses and leases. If a company or an individual pollutes or makes super profits, or bribes, lobbying and corrupting politicians, then it should immediately be taken back into public ownership and stay there.
- Article updated, amended and adapted from an original article I published in 2008
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