Friday, 20 February 2009

Property rights are human rights: let’s protect them say NZ academics! [updated]

I’m astonished.  The last two decades have seen attack after attack on New Zealanders’ property rights.

  • the imposition of the Resource Management Act, which gave planners full power over your land;
  • the confiscation of crown pastoral leases;
  • ‘right to roam’ laws attacking the sanctity of farmers’ land;
  • the destruction of Maori land value by Crown pre-emption rights;
  • the nationalisation of petroleum;
  • the partial nationalisation of Telecom;
  • the confiscation of the legal right to claim the foreshore and seabed under common law;
  • the destruction of value of pre-1990 forests under the Emissions Trading Scheme;
  • unwanted power pylons being imposed on Waikato farmers;
  • the attack on the value of shares in Auckland International Airport Ltd.

And in the last Parliament, when offered the opportunity to place the protection of property rights in NZ’s Bill of Rights Act, MPs peremptorily voted it down –- with John Key’s National Party being prominent in the ‘Noes’ lobby when it finally came to the vote.

Despite abundant historical evidence of the many blessings of property rights, and cogent arguments defending these life-sustaining rights, both academics and politicians of all stripes have been on the front foot against property rights for years.

So how astonishing then to see National Party hack Matthew Hooton promoting the work of two academics from the state-worshipping climes of Victoria University, who argue in advance of next week’s Jobs Summit that “if the new Government moves to protect property rights, there will be more jobs in our economy than otherwise.” 

Professor Lewis Evans and Professor Neil Quigley of the Institute for the Study of Competition and Regulation at Victoria University of Wellington, along with NERA Economic Consulting, entitled ‘Protection of Private Property Rights and Just Compensation: An Economic Analysis of the Most Fundamental Human Right Not Provided in New Zealand.’

The paper compares New Zealand’s record on property rights with the rest of the OECD; finds our record to be among the worst in the developed world; details the economic harm being done to all New Zealanders as a result; and proposes a legislative solution involving an amendment to the Bill of Rights Act to ensure a canary in the mine exists to alert the public if and when future parliaments seek to confiscate property rights without compensation.  [The full paper can be found at and it was also previewed on page six of today’s National Business Review.]

There is much to be disappointed with in an argument made on practical grounds alone, without any statement of the moral grounds on which property rights must be protected –- and much to object to in the notion that property rights equates only to ‘compensation for takings’ instead of outright protection against theft of what you own –- but in these times seeing support for property rights from any local quarter is welcoming.

And they’re right, you know. If the new Government does move to protect property rights, then there will be more jobs in our economy than otherwise. 

An understanding of the vital role of property rights and lawfulness in creating wealth should be basic knowledge for every thinking person, shouldn’t it?  Even a politician.

Tibor Machans' authoritative piece on the Right to Private Property would be a good place for honest thinking persons to start their education: "The institution of the right to private property," says Tibor, "is perhaps the single most important condition for a society in which freedom, including free trade, is to flourish."

UPDATE: Quote corrected.


  1. "The paper compares New Zealand’s record on human rights with the rest of the OECD; finds our record to be among the worst in the developed world;"

    Surely not. The worst in protecting property rights yes, but surely not human rights. Yes, I have just found the sentence – worst protection of private rights - not human rights.

    This is a timely report and this is a good time for Rodney to resurrect his bill.
    The Maori party would support it and then how could the nats back off?

    This is the right time to make the economic argument and keep it focused.

  2. Thanks. Corrected that.

    BTW, the Bill that attempted to place property rights in the BORA -- the one National voted against -- was not Rodney's Bill, but Gordon Copeland's.

  3. National Party MPs voted against property rights? Wouldn't that be against their party's constitution?


  4. You can ask for the moral argument for property rights, but then that isn't what economists do. They're not philosphers, they're fully aware of the difference between positive and normative analysis and generally abhore the normative, and words like "fair".

    What economists can do is explain the link between property rights and standard of living/longevity/education/etc. That I think is much, much more powerful than mounting a moral case which can be rebutted by the words, "I disagree".

  5. Matt B

    In the absence of a sound moral foundation, an argument for individual property rights ultimately doesn't succeed.

    For example, you may support the notion that the standard of living/longevity/education should improve, hence property rights should be respected (and your post implies that's what you do indeed think). But why should those things improve? Is it right that they should? How good is good enough? By what standard should these things be "improved"? Why is that? Why?

    There are those who mount effective arguments opposing increased standards of living/longevity/education and so on. Note that, in essence, those people are arguing about morality. Against that, assuming you haven't a moral case, you'll have lost the battle before the fighting starts!


  6. Owen,
    what is the difference between "private rights" and "human rights"?


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