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Unfranked 36 – Are property rights more important than democracy?

  • April 8th, 2005

“Yeah whatever!!!”, was the first reaction to my applause of yesterday’s winner in the member’s bill raffle. The next response said “It’s a dangerous statement”, meaning dangerous for me, of being misinterpreted. Here is the statement:

“Stephen Franks today pledged ACT’s full support for MP Gordon Copeland’s member’s Bill to extend the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 to protect property rights.

“No reputable human rights code omits property rights as a foundation,” Mr Franks said. “Some historians and scholars make a strong case for property rights being more essential than democracy to establishing freedom, and more valuable in preserving it.

“Six years ago Act MP Owen Jennings tried to achieve the same thing in a bill of the same name but Labour and National ganged up against it.

The release then praised Mr Copeland’s selection of the topic for his member’s bill, and added “This Bill should get unqualified support from all Maori MPs. Disguised confiscation under the RMA has devalued land owned by Maori just as it has for other New Zealanders. Classical English property rights were promised to New Zealanders in Article 2 of the Treaty, but Labour and National governments have trashed them.

Other feedback was more encouraging. A supporter pointed to colonial Hong Kong, as an undemocratic haven of relative freedom for Chinese.

Then a prominent NZ liberal academic affirmed the intellectual credentials of those who’ve argued that property rights protect human rights better than democracy, concluding “I’d say both… are vital”.
Private Property Rights in History

The original champion of property rights was John Locke, but it took the 5th amendment to the US constitution (“property shall not be taken without just compensation”) to lock property rights in to the grandfather of all constitutions that make human rights the heart of the rule of law.
Modern Scholarship

In “The Mystery of Capital” Hernando de Soto explains how a lack of secure property rights leaves most of the world’s population without the mechanisms to turn their assets into more productive ‘capital’. Tom Bethell’s “The Noblest Triumph” illustrates similar points in a comparative historical review of prosperity waxing and waning.

David Landes, in “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” links the property rights characteristics of peoples to their cultures. He explains the high correlation between respect for property rights, and wealth. What incentives do cultures set up in what they reward and punish? Do they reward taking more than making? Or making over taking?

Harvard scholar Richard Pipes in “Property and Freedom” builds the case for the essential connection between property rights and the development of law and individual liberty, beginning with Greece and Rome. He contrasts England, where property rights and parliamentary government advanced hand-in-hand, with Russia, where restrictions on ownership for centuries abetted authoritarian regimes, and have left a culture where “might is right” persistently defeats attempts to create a climate of commercial and political morality.
New Zealand’s PC Version of Human Rights

The omission of property rights from the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 was disgraceful. Many Commonwealth constitutions were framed during the baleful intellectual reign of post-Fabians of the London School of Economics. Independence leaders often saw property rights as an unfortunate impediment to ‘land reform’. Most Commonwealth constitutions nevertheless provide for property rights. Singapore is the notable exception, along with New Zealand.

The significance of this omission – and the extraordinary New Zealand ignorance of its importance, can be seen in Tom Allen’s “The Right to Property in Commonwealth Constitutions”. In Allen’s comprehensive work, New Zealand does not even have an index entry. Of the hundreds of case citations only four are New Zealand cases, none upholding property rights. Among over 200 works in Allen’s bibliography there is only one with any recognisable New Zealand connection.(1)

All power then to Mr Copeland’s arm. If they are serious United Future should require a Labour undertaking that the Bill will not lapse when Parliament rises for the election. They should make it a condition of voting for May’s Labour election budget, that the Bill will be part of the carry-over motion.

(1) An essay by Michael Taggart in Forsyth and Hare (eds) ‘The Golden Metwand and the Crooked Cord: Essays on Public Law in Honour of Sir William Wade QC pp91-112, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. Michael Taggart is also acknowledged as having read a draft of chapter 7 of Allen’s book.

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