Sunday, 28 August 2005

Northland campaigning: Property rights

I've been speaking in Whangarei and Kerekeri over the last couple of evenings on the subject of property rights, with Helen Hughes (Hooch) and Julian Pistorius as my fellow campaigners.

Here's the text of my basic speech. Enjoy. :-)

[Ad-lib introduction]

Protection of property rights is amongst the chief reasons for which governments are constituted, yet successive NZ governments over recent years have not only ignored your property rights, but have actively sought to remove them.

New Zealanders who once themselves understood the crucial importance of property rights now seem bemused by their lack, until perhaps they themselves find they can’t build on their own property, can’t cut down their own trees, can’t use their property in ways they always have, or find that control of their property has been passed to someone else … and that someone carries a clip-board and must be called ‘Sir’ … and we must pay that person for the privilege of asking them permission to do what we want to on our own land.

It’s not right.

Author Ayn Rand once observed that when the productive have to ask permission from the unproductive in order to produce, then you may know that your culture is doomed. Aren’t we there now?

The productive have been asking permission from the unproductive in order to produce … and you haven’t been getting it, have you. Not without a fight. Not without iwi consents. Not without a large legal bill, and several weeks spent with a consultant.

There is a litany of projects across the country – projects both large and small --that have never and will never get of the ground – permission having been sought at great time, energy and expense, and permission never having been granted. The number of large infrastructure projects completed in the last ten years can be counted on the fingers of one foot.

There is a litany of projects both large and small that are just stillborn; never to be attempted, as people realise that there’s no point in planning projects and paying for consultants and for permission that will never be granted.

And there are people who have now realised that their land is no longer their’s, since ownership means nothing when you must ask someone else’s permission in order to use that which you own.

It’s not right.

We’ve lost our property rights, and we’ve lost the understanding of why property rights are important. What we’re losing is part of our heritage: part of what made the West rich, and part of what protected our freedom, our liberty, and our lives.

From as far back as the Magna Carta, there has been an understanding that private property deserves and requires protection. Such protection became part of the common law tradition brought to New Zealand in 1840. The rights and privileges granted by the Treaty assumed the context of contemporary common law protections, which have now largely been lost.

As time passes, it has become more evident that private property rights are among the most fundamental and most valuable rights. Indeed, as author-philosopher Ayn Rand argued, property rights are not just among the most fundamental right, without them no other rights are possible:
The right to life (said Ayn Rand) is the source of all rights--and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave...
Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the other rights: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he does earn it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.

And it is the material values we each produce that keep us alive, and allow us to flourish.
Unlike other animals human beings cannot survive as we come into the world; in order to stay alive and to flourish we each need to produce and to keep the fruits of our production. If our minds are our means of survival – as Julian Simon used to say, our Ultimate Resource – then property is the result of applying the creative potential of our minds to reality in order to enhance our lives. The property we produce in this manner needs legal protection in order to secure our survival. Without legal protection, we must battle today to protect that which we struggled to produce yesterday.

The need for a legal framework protecting property has been long ignored or taken for granted by economists and legal theorists of all stripes, but its importance is slowly being re-understood by contemporary thinkers. Tom Bethell’s landmark book The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages traces successes and disasters of history consequent upon the respective recognition or denial of property through the ages: Ireland’s potato famine, the desertification of the Sahara, and the near-disastrous US colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth can all be traced to lack of respect for property argues Bethell.

In his book, he identifies four crucial blessings of property
that [he says cannot easily be recognised in a society that lacks the secure, decentralised, private ownership of goods. These are: liberty, justice, peace and prosperity. The argument of [his] book is that private property is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for these highly desirable social outcomes.
Property rights then give us a Turangawaewae , a firm place to stand deserving of legal protection. Their full legal and constitutional protection is crucial, in order to ensure that their protection is not taken away by arbitrary legislative fiat, as has happened over recent years.

Private property rights do not just protect us; they provide the strongest possible protection for the environment, since owners with clearly defined and secure property rights have a strong incentive to care for their land. Our property rights act like ‘mirrors,’ reflecting back on ourselves the consequences of our own actions. They also give us the power to act as guardians against abuse by others – specific legal power to act against those who would damage the environmental values of our property. However, as property rights are eroded people become less willing to invest in good stewardship because they are uncertain as to where the benefits of their labours will finally accrue. Most damage to the environment is the result of ‘the tragedy of the commons’ whereby people are encouraged to ‘take the last fish’ or ‘cut down the last tree’ because if they don’t, then someone else will. Property rights solves the ‘tragedy of the commons’ by defining ‘whose tree’ it is, and by giving secure legal protection to those planning longer range by planting trees.

As Hernando de Soto argues, property rights extend people’s time horizons by allowing them to plan longer-range rather than shorter. In jurisdictions in which property rights are not secure, he writes, it will be observed that people will build their furniture before they build their walls or their roof. The reason for this is that without the protection of property rights, such short-term action is rational: property in such a jurisdiction needs to be kept mobile as property cannot be kept secure. As property rights become more secure time horizons become longer, and planning can become longer range.

Contemporary Abuse of Property Rights by Legislative Fiat

The most glaring example in recent years of the destruction of property rights by legislative fiat is that of the Resource Management Act (RMA). In all the nearly five-hundred pages of the RMA there is not one reference to property rights – not one! -- yet it is people’s property and their use of it with which the RMA deals directly.

This absence might not be of such import, and not encourage so many abuses, if there was universal understanding of the importance of property rights – but there isn’t -- or if there were constitutional protection for property rights. But there isn’t. If there had been, we would never have got the RMA. Unfortunately, the importance of property rights is understood today only by freedom’s adversaries – and valued only by their absence.

Karl Marx understood the importance of property rights, which is why he made the first point in the Communist manifesto – point number one – the abolition of private property. As Leon Trotsky long ago pointed out with some glee, where there is no private ownership individuals can be easily bent to the will of the state under threat of starvation or worse. Only ghosts can survive without property, human beings cannot. The enemies of freedom understand this point. It’s time the rest of us understood it too, and its high time we shouted out our demand to the rooftops that we have our freedom and our property rights back. High time! Who’s with me?

Now I have to tell you, you won’t get back your freedom and your property rights without a struggle. And you won’t get them back at this election.

Every election is an advance auction of stolen goods, perhaps this one more so than any other in recent years. Not one party is offering you your freedom and property rights … except Libertarianz. Not one party is promising to abolish the RMA … except Libertarianz.

All the other parties have at least recognised that the RMA is a problem, but none understand that the problem is that the RMA doesn’t protect your property rights … it does them over. As I said, in all its five-hundred odd pages, the RMA doesn’t even mention property rights. Not once. Little wonder that there is a problem. The common law has seven hundred years of sophistication and success in protecting both property rights and the environment; the RMA has a record of just ten of doing them over.

So how do the other parties propose to fix the problem of the RMA? Let me summarise: The Greens want to ensure the RMA gives greater rights to trees, rocks and mud puddles, and even greater rights to those who claim to speak for them. The Labour Party want the Greens in coalition and promise window-dressing as a minimum, the Greens’ agenda if they have to. The National Party… in the words of National’s Nick Smith, a man with a fork in his tongue big enough to hug a tree with, a man who calls the RMA “far-sighted environmental legislation” the National Party is offering you (in his own words) more window-dressing and more bureaucrats. And the ACT Party? ACT aren’t really sure what they’re offering, but they do know it will involve more consultants.

They’re all offering you more of the same, only more so. But not the Libertarianz. With Libertarianz the RMA would be gone by lunchtime. (Maybe even morning tea.) We promise a stake through the heart of the RMA. We promise the reinstatement of common law protection of your property rights. We promise you your freedom.

At this election and every election, you have just two fundamental choices: Nanny State in several difent guises, or personal freedom, and the Libertarianz.

There is no other choice. Any other vote is a vote for more of the same. Any other vote, especially a vote for something your don’t even believe, IS a wasted vote.

Only Libertarianz promise to get govment out of your pocket, out of your face, and out of your life. Permanently. And only Libertarianz understand that it is a cultural change that is needed in order to make that happen. Your vote, and your support, will help us make it happen.

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