PRIVATE property has long been recognised as the backbone of free societies.
Almost 200 years ago the Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that civil society could be defined as one in which the principles of "property, contract and consent" guide human interaction.
Many great philosophers and classical economists have emphasised the importance of defined and enforced private property rights for achieving economic prosperity and social harmony. Humans can prosper anywhere with well-defined and enforced property rights, but if these institutions are lacking any prosperity is likely to be short-lived at best.
Hundreds of millions of people still live in countries where there is little regard for private property rights, and even less of an understanding of how these rights contribute to their economic and political well-being. But even in countries with a history of support for property rights, of which Australia is one, there is complacency towards government erosion of them.
An issue that has raised few property rights concerns, notwithstanding its implications, is the introduction of plain packaging of cigarettes. This legislation, supported by both sides of politics, has largely destroyed the brands of the tobacco companies, which are highly valuable intellectual property.
The legislation was challenged in the High Court, but it decided that the constitution allowed the government to destroy property values without paying compensation as long as the government made no pecuniary gain from it.
Thus a future government is free to impose obligations on land owners that reduce or remove entirely the value of their property, without paying compensation, provided it does not benefit itself.
Another private property issue attracting little attention is the ever-expanding range of rules governing what is and is not permitted on certain property.
An excellent example is smoking. Clubs, pubs and restaurants, all privately owned property, are denied the right to allow smoking on their premises. A property owner who decided it might be commercially attractive to allow smoking and was happy to erect signs warning patrons so they could choose whether to enter, would be prosecuted.
A similar tendency is now being seen with alcohol. Governments are increasingly dictating when privately owned premises may serve alcohol, to whom, and how much.
There are examples in relation to the seizure of property from supposed criminals, with a growing tendency to dispense with the need to prove criminality. Being out of favour with the police or a relevant minister is enough.
A property rights issue that occasionally raise hackles is the rezoning of land, either without compensation or with compensation that is manifestly inadequate. This is often accompanied by a whiff of corruption as subsequent owners appear to be the chief beneficiaries. The Obeid and McDonald cases in NSW have elements of this.
One of the few property rights issues to attract popular attention, particularly in the agricultural community, is bans on land clearing. Arising from the Howard government’s determination to meet the greenhouse gas reduction targets of the Kyoto Protocol, the states were coerced into passing laws prohibiting land clearing. At the time the Commonwealth thought this was the only way to avoid paying compensation for the loss of property values.
The effect has been widespread hardship, with properties unable to be cleared of regrowth and land seriously reduced in value.
In each of these examples, and there are many more, property rights have been eroded by government action. Contrary to being well-defined, certain and enforceable, they show rights are vulnerable to capricious regulatory intervention. In every case, prosperity and social harmony are adversely affected.
While some might argue each case by itself is relatively minor and that property rights in general are not under assault, each tolerance of minor encroachments makes it easier for governments to go further next time. Our liberties may be destroyed in baby steps rather than giant leaps, but the direction is inexorable.
Those who believe in property rights, and I suspect that is most Australians, ought to be concerned whenever governments seek to limit them.
It is not necessary to approve of smoking or excessive drinking to support the rights of property owners to decide what to allow on their own property.
It is not necessary to approve of outlaw motorcycle gangs or youngsters who engage in burnouts to disapprove of the seizure of their property in the absence of a conviction.
It is not necessary to be on the losing side before objecting to property being rezoned that deprives its owners of value.
And it is not necessary to own a farm on which regrowth is rampant to agree that the land clearing laws are an appalling denial of the rights of property owners to pursue their own prosperity.
But it might help if those who have an interest in any of these recognise the fact that the problem extends beyond their particular issue.
Property rights are under assault on all fronts, and the only way to prevent loss on a large scale is to fight each and every battle as if it is your own. David Leyonhjelm has been an agribusiness consultant for 25 years and was recently elected to the Senate for the Liberal Democrats. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org