Louise Mensch, Piers Morgan’s least favourite groupie, endured something of a Twitter and Facebook storm on Wednesday after she suggested that:
… there is a case for local authorities to force landlords who keep property vacant to rent it, if it is determined that the vacant stock is anti-social or being abused. It might be forcibly made available for social housing, but that of course is legitimate and pays rent to landlords. Not as first resort, not immediately, but one effective sanction that might both relieve social housing pressure, and avoid squatting.
This idea is wrong in so many ways. Who is to determine what is “anti-social” – a subjective term too open to arbitrary interpretation? It fails to acknowledge the economic factors behind housing shortages (the lack of supply isn’t only restricted to social housing provision and is in no small part a result of planning restrictions). Squatting should be tackled through the law – it is theft after all – and not by the state effectively employing similar tactics.
In fact such powers already exist in some ways, in that local authorities can compulsorily purchase vacant property in certain circumstances and transfer it to social housing stock. It’s not clear whether Louise Mensch was already aware of this, though to be fair her idea is slightly less draconian.
Unsurprisingly Louise was criticised, correctly in my view, for proposing that the state should stick its nose into how someone should choose to use – or, more relevantly, not – their property. This is a more fundamental principled objection, though, which highlights what I fear is a lack of a coherent political philosophy behind the Cameron government.
In response to the critics, Louise pointed out that the state already places limits on property rights; this is certainly true, and not only through planning, rates and listing, as she has said – if only it stopped there! Government also holds powers of compulsory purchase of property in more circumstances than mentioned already. However, the definition of property should not be restricted to land and buildings, nor even to tangible assets. For example, leave your money untouched for too long in a bank account, and the state can help itself to it, through legal provisions introduced under Labour but continuing now. At the extremes – though one cannot deny the private nature of such property – some would even have the state assume ownership of your bodily organs should you not actively deny it that right. Thankfully the latter proposal – that of presumed consent – has not succeeded whenever it has been put forward, at least in England, but worryingly there have been Conservatives that have expressed support for even this most insidious of measures.
Indeed, it should be of real concern that there are significant numbers of Tories who either do not understand the importance of the concept of private property, or actually feel it is so easily trumped by whatever bandwagon is passing, or bee that is residing in their millinery.
Without confidence that one will be able to enjoy the fruits of one’s efforts without undue hindrance, what foundation is there for economic freedom, and the wider freedoms that depend on it?
What our generation has forgotten is that the system of private property is the most important guarantee of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not. It is only because the control of the means of production is divided among many people acting independently that nobody has complete power over us, that we as individuals can decide what to do with ourselves.
[…]the power which a multiple millionaire…has over me is very much less than that which the smallest functionaire possesses who wields the coercive power of the state and on whose discretion is depends whether and how I am allowed to live…?
(F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom Chapter 8 )
One could be left wondering how Conservative some “Conservatives” really are. It is true that many limits are placed on that freedom that go beyond what is required to protect other’s property rights, including some degree of those that Louise Mensch cited, but Conservatives should be expected to reverse such intrusions, not advance them further on the grounds that it’s only a little bit more of the same.
Just because we’ve taken a few steps on the road to serfdom, it doesn’t mean we must break into a run.