So yes, I’m back, so hopefully you’ll forgive the essay-length post – I get my hand back in soon enough.
Genuine freedom cannot exist without economic freedom. A prerequisite of economic freedom is the upholding of private property rights. Yet are we slowly losing sight of the importance of the right to own property?
I am not simply referring to ‘property’ in the sense of land and building, but private ownership in a broader sense, to include everything from the cash in your bank account to intangible assets such as investments and intellectual property, and even – though I find it sad to have to include it now – your own body.
We are accustomed, of course, to the Left having no respect, or seemingly understanding, of property rights – the simple concept of being able to own and enjoy property without undue interference: wilful damage of property is not seen as violence, private property is seen as depriving another of its use, the state is seen as having first call on property should the “common good” require it – be it anything from the compulsory purchase of land and buildings to the confiscation (even with compensation) of shares in a private company.
Yet like so much that arose from socialist doctrine – a 1940’s health service, or nationalised postal services, say – there are many Conservatives who either fail to appreciate or actively defend or promote action that erodes property rights.
One key example is in town planning. Many countries might design zoning systems to establish some sort of control of urban sprawl, setting down broad principles of siting and design less open to arbitrary interpretation. The UK, on the other hand, in yet another hangover of late 40’s socialist planning – can even go as far as dictating the design and colour of windows and the seemingly tiniest details of a building (if you are living in a conservation area or listed building). You will find plenty of councillors from all sides who support this system, whether through conviction or the perception that many of their residents do. Everyone wants to be able to do what they want to their own house, but are equally happy to have the council dictate what others do on theirs, beyond that which might genuinely hinder their own enjoyment of their property.
Another example arises from today’s story (not the first such case) which the headline to this post references; a product of the legislative bulldozer that is Equalities. The Christian B&B owners who barred a gay couple from their B&B had been reported to the police – a result of legislation which trumps the right to bar or welcome whoever you like from entering your property. The legislation was a product of the Labour government, so no surprises there. What was disappointing was the Conservative reaction.
Firstly, it should be noted that the party had already, in opposition, voted in favour of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007, which the couple had fallen foul of. Secondly, though, the then shadow home secretary Chris Grayling defended the couple, on the grounds that an “individual should have the right to decide who does and who doesn’t come into their own home.” Fine, except in making that point he was actually defending the decision being based on religious conscience, not the broader point that one’s reason should not require any justification beyond the simple fact that it is your property. Furthermore, the party’s follow-up spin suggested that the right to exclude should only apply to homes and not businesses. The response revealed at best a confused understanding of how different rights should interact, at worst a complete ignorance of basic property rights – and this, from the Conservative Party which, with all due respect to UKIP (who I do feel a strong affinity with), is the only right-of-centre party ever likely to form a government under our current electoral system. I know, depressing isn’t it?
Now had it been my B&B – or shop, hotel or any other business – I would not have turned away gay customers. That though is my choice, just as it was that Christian couple’s choice (or indeed a gay B&B owner’s) who they welcomed onto their property – be it a home or business, and regardless of the basis of that decision. Too many gay commentators have displayed a knee-jerk reaction and complained of discrimination on ground of sexuality. Christians similarly complain of being hard done by because of their religion, but with the added charge (and not without foundation) that *ahem* certain other religions seem to be allowed to carry on regardless.
There is also an irony at play here – I have been to many places around the world where the likes of the Rough Guide will contain specific sections relating to ‘gay-friendly’ establishments. I have no problem with that, but it cuts both ways.
Finally, we move beyond property rights in any conventional sense, to an issue where nevertheless the principles still apply; that is the state assuming rights over that most precious of all property – one’s own body. One example of this is the ban on selling your own ‘spare’ organs (typically kidneys) – a restriction that defies rational explanation. Another example is the concept of ‘presumed consent’ whereby unless you actively opt-out, your usable organs are re-used after your death.
That the state should have residual rights over your bodily organs is, frankly, abhorrent. Not that organ donation is a bad thing at all, quite the opposite, but that this ultimate manifestation of the relinquishing of a fundamental right of ownership for the “common good” should have become a real possibility. The issue has arisen in Parliament on more than one occasion. On the 28th June 2004, for example, an attempt to introduce presumed consent was roundly defeated. However, among those supporting the bid were a number of Conservatives including Iain Duncan Smith. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200304/cmhansrd/vo040628/debtext/40628-30.htm
More depressingly for those of us who believe in freedom, opinion polls do show a majority in favour of presumed consent – reflecting the familiar picture with so many manifestations of overbearing state interference, that people are in favour so long as they think it will work for them, without considering that such power can equally be used to their detriment. You know, what Niemoller said.
Unless the fruits of one’s efforts are allowed to be enjoyed without undue interference (with appropriate sanctions where it hinders another’s right to enjoy theirs), economic freedom and resulting prosperity will only ever be built on sand – an Englishman’s Castle requires deeper foundations than that.