The slow death of private property

The part-nationalisation of Britain’s banks represents a further extension of state power and the erosion of private property rights. There is a huge danger that under political influence the banking sector will be compelled to pursue socialist objectives rather than maximise returns for shareholders. 

This development would be less worrying had it been an isolated example. However, the erosion of private property rights has been a long, gradual process. World War I played a key role, leading to a step-change in the role of the state and a huge expansion of its powers.

Taxation has been gradually extended ever since, particularly through the expansion of the welfare state, and now takes about 45p of every £1 earned (including indirect taxes). This in itself undermines private property, since the state takes a large share of any income earned from it and will confiscate property if tax is not paid.
 
The de-facto nationalisation of land, or at least development rights, with the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act was another important step. Owners were no longer permitted to use their land as they wished (subject to common law restraints on nuisance and voluntary restrictive covenants etc.). Instead government technocrats would direct land use centrally in a communist-style system.
 
Equality laws, whether based on gender, race or disability, have also undermined private property or, at the very least, freedom of contract. They have given government the power to enforce access by various groups. Yet it is impossible to impose equality laws without engaging in unfair discrimination. For example, disability rules have discriminated against certain businesses, forcing them to pay out for wider doorways, lifts and ramps. For the first time, the Disability Discrimination Act had retrospective effect in this respect.
 
However, there has been something more pernicious about recent acts by this government to undermine private property. The nationalisation of both Railtrack and the banks seemed to come about after government incompetence (or deliberate policy) undermined their values so that they could be bought on the cheap. And regulation has increasingly been used to move control of private property from the private sector to the government without any compensation. One of many examples is the ban on smoking in private pubs and clubs – a policy which has already led to the closure of many businesses.

23 February 2009, IEA Blog

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