Property 'rights,' Scottish style
March 2, 2003
By Colin McNickle, editorial page editor
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Those Scots sure do have a funny way of celebrating their fledgling legislative autonomy -- by seeking to destroy one of liberty's fundamentals.
The toddling Scottish Parliament in January overwhelmingly passed a land "reform" bill, The New York Times reports. Some reform. If signed into law by Queen Elizabeth II -- and it is expected to be -- three liberty-defying provisions will be hatched:
One of the arguments put forth by crofters who've been hear-hearing the new law? Some owners have done nothing with their land or have not visited it for years. This is an excuse for government-directed private property reallocation?
Granted, crofter collectives seeking such land must win purchasing approval in a local referendum. And there is an appeals process.
But the measure turns the term "property rights" into an oxymoron. It undermines the concept of "clear title," thus stagnating all Scottish property's capital-producing potential and, in essence, devaluing it.
"The only countries in the world left with this kind of thing are North Korea and Cuba," Peter de Savary told The Times. He's the entrepreneur responsible for turning late Pittsburgh steel baron Andrew Carnegie's Dornach home, Skibo Castle, into the popular resort it is today.
What possibly could have led those sitting in Edinburgh to devise such legislation? A desire for a warped form of reparations brought on by class-envy further fueled by a fancy to experiment anew with the failed experiment of Marxism, I can only deduce.
Half of all of Scotland's private property is held by just 343 landowners, supporters of the new measure bewail. And only half of those properties have been on the market over the last 100 years, they argue. It's not fair, they cry. The land "reform" bill is something akin to "justice."
It was two centuries ago that the crofters were evicted from many tracts of land during the "Highland Clearances." Beginning in 1785, large landowners expanded their workable acreage, primarily for sheep grazing. More money was to be had from large-scale sheep farming than the crofters' small-scale farming. And no doubt the evictions, involving tens of thousands of people, could be brutal.
"Homes were burnt and tenants forced to leave at the point of sword or musket, carrying little or nothing as they headed toward a life of poverty and hunger," details one history of the practice that forced them to barren land, or crofts, near the sea. The fishing was poor, kelping (the gathering of seaweed) offered meager income and, by the 1840s, what potatoes that could be grown were wiped out in the famine.
But for Scottish landowners of today to be expected to "pay" for their ancestors' "misdeeds" -- misdeeds I place in quotes because the evicted, often even members of the owners' own clan, were tenants, not owners -- is akin to the drive in this country for slavery reparations. The new Scottish measures eviscerate a primary building block of civil, free and capitalistic society.
"One of the most fundamental requirements of a capitalist economic system -- and one of the most misunderstood concepts -- is a strong system of property rights," reminds Armen A. Alchian, an emeritus professor of economics at UCLA.
For decades, Mr. Alchian offers in "The Concise Encyclopaedia of Economics," social critics in the United States and throughout the Western World "have complained that 'property' rights too often take precedence over 'human' rights, with the result that people are treated unequally and have unequal opportunities."
But Alchian offers this reality check: "Inequality exists in any society. But the purported conflict between property rights and human rights is a mirage -- property rights are human rights."
Or as David Friedman, the son of Nobel economics laureate Milton Friedman, once put it, "Property rights are not the rights of property; they are the rights of humans with regard to property. They are a particular kind of human right."
It's a fact not lost on some of the embattled Scottish landowners, who say they'll challenge the law before the European Court of Human Rights.
Alchian says that forcible reallocation -- as the new Scottish law provides -- is a pretty good indicator that existing rights have not been adequately protected.
"Private property rights are the rights of humans to use specified goods and to exchange them," he adds. "Any restraint on private property rights shifts the balance of power from impersonal attributes toward personal attributes and toward behavior that political authorities approve.
"That is the fundamental reason for preference of a system of strong private property rights," Alchian says: "Private property rights protect individual liberty."
Swiss-cheese private property rights do not.
Reminded Peter F. Schaefer, a senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, in a Washington Post commentary in December:
"If there is no property law, then the ultimate sanction protecting property is vested with the political authority, not with the resident. If it is the political authority, not civil law, that guarantees the property line and so can change it or take it away, then that authority is, in effect, the ultimate owner. This is monarchy, feudalism, tribalism, authoritarianism and dictatorship: You support me and I will let you keep your house. Or register your car. Or set up a business."
But what the Scottish Parliament has passed is a perversion of property law. For the property marketplace can only work freely and fairly when there is not just a willing buyer but a willing seller.
Anything less is an invitation for totalitarianism. What a tragedy that the Scots have embraced it the name of "progress."