Tim Worstall justifiably gets angry about this plan to force owners of coastal properties to allow the public to have access to the properties, and without compensation. I weighed in with the comments on the board and deciding not to let the discussion go to waste, I wanted to quote a character called Kay, who comes up with what I might call the “brute utilitarian” argument one hears for compulsory purchase/eminent domain laws here and in other nations:
Allowing veto rights to every landowner and shareholder results in complete deadlock. That ridiculous stance may be taken by some who posted here, but the rest of us would rather live in an advanced civilisation with electricity, railways, roads, public limited companies, etc.
I sense that this argument is nonsense, but there may be something in it. It is interesting that the commenter mentions limited liability corporations – we have been over that issue before at this blog. But is it really the case that say, electricity could not be easily conveyed across the UK without coercing landowners into letting this occur? I assume, of course, that if many landowners refused point blank to do this, that the situation would result in lots of very small, easy-to-move electricity generators being built. But in practice, the vast majority of landowners want easy access to electricity, water and roads like everyone else, and with a bit of inducement – shares in revenues from tolls, rental payments for pipes and pylons – would agree to things being built on their land. There may be “extreme cases”, where landlords hold so much sway that they try to strangle beneficial technologies across a vast tract of land, and I suppose this is possible, but it strikes me as not very likely. I’d be interested to know, for example, whether the 18th century canal-builders required a lot of compulsory purchase laws to get their way. If memory serves from reading history, what happened was a lot of haggling and the odd bit of special legislation passed in the House of Commons.
I think the problem with the “brute utilitarian” argument is not simply its undertone of “We want – we take”. It is also its deafness to the fact that most people, most of the time, have sufficient rational self interest to act in ways that benefit not just themselves but most of the rest of us. The trouble is that once the enthusiasm for seizure takes hold, it is often hard for its proponents to even think about how things can be ordered differently. I have heard people express admiration for the Continental, Roman Law-based system which supposedly is so much less messy and fuddy-duddy than the Common Law one in this respect. When people start to invoke “efficiency” and so forth, guard your wallet and front door.
Meanwhile, for a good discussion on the tricky issue of how property claims can be arrived at justly in the first place, this book is worth a read. One thing that bugs me about discussions about property is when some character will argue that “X or Y stole the land from poor benighted natives in the Year xxxx BC so all property since is tainted”, as if that somehow justifies looting now. It does not.
As an aside, it is also worth noting that compulsory purchase laws, particularly when used to turf people off their property to create other, supposedly more valuable economic outcomes, is a vehicle for corruption.
Update and side-observation: it is only fair to say that some – in my view misguided – libertarians have tried to argue that land, because it was not created by Man, should be taxed more heavily than income or other things, and for some people, this sort of tax is a sort of “rectification” of any previous injustices inflicted by the acquisition of property. The name of 19th Century writer Henry George occasionally comes up. I was once quite taken with the idea but there are weaknesses to it. For a start, a person who makes more use of land than was the case before because of his entrepreneurial vigour should not, in my view, be penalised for thereby raising the value of that land, which is what a land-tax, if based on land values, would do. There remains this view, widely shared, that land should not be ultimately owned by any individual because land and minerals, or indeed the sea, is “just there”, an inert set of substances that we can manipulate, but not create new value from. That seems to undermine the very notion of wealth creation per se, in my view.
Oh, and here is an item from the Ludwig von Mises Institute on eminent domain.
Another update: Devil’s Kitchen shares my opinion but does so in a more, ahem, salty way. Check out the comments, where Samizdata regular Ian B takes on Kay Tie. In boxing terms, the judge would have had to stop the fight to protect Kay from serious injury.