By Ken Schoolland
Dull two- and three-storey wooden row houses lined the streets of the town. Then Jonathan noticed one grand, elegant home, standing apart from everything, isolated on an expansive green lawn. It looked solidly built, adorned with attractive latticework and freshly painted white walls. Curious, Jonathan approached the house and found a crew wielding heavy sticks, attacking the back of the home and trying to tear it down. They weren’t very enthusiastic and moved very slowly at the job. Nearby, a dignified, grey-haired woman stood with her hands clenched, visibly unhappy at the proceedings. She groaned audibly when a piece of the wall came down.
Jonathan walked over to her and asked “That house looks well built. Who’s the owner?” “That’s a good question!” the woman shot back vehemently. “I thought I owned this house.” “You thought you owned it? Surely you know if you own a house,” said Jonathan. The ground shook as the entire back wall collapsed inside. The woman stared miserably at the cloud of dust billowing up from the rubble. “It’s not that simple,” yelled the woman over the noise. “Ownership is control, right? But who controls this house? The Lords control everything – so they’re the real owners of this house, even though I built it and paid for every board and nail.” Growing more agitated, she walked over and ripped a paper off a single post left where a whole wall had stood moments before. “See this notice?” She crumpled it, threw it down and stamped on it. “The officials tell me what I may build, how I may build, when I may build, and what I can use it for. Now they tell me they’re tearing it down. Does that sound like I own the property?” “Well,” ventured Jonathan sheepishly, “didn’t you live in it?” “Only so long as I could keep paying the property taxes. If I didn’t pay, the officials would have booted me out faster than you can say ‘next case’ !” The woman grew red with fury and continued breathlessly, “No one really owns anything. We merely rent from the Council so long as we pay their taxes.” “You didn’t pay the tax?” asked Jonathan. “Of course I paid the cursed tax!” the woman practically shouted. “But that wasn’t enough for them. This time, the Lords said that my plan for the house didn’t fit their plan – the master plan of ‘superior owners,’ they told me. They condemned my house – gave me some money for what they said it was worth. And now they’re going to clear it away to make a park. The park will have a nice big monument in the centre – a monument to one of their own.”
“Well, at least they paid you for the house,” said Jonathan. He thought a moment and asked, “Weren’t you satisfied?” She gave him a sideways look. “If I was satisfied, they wouldn’t have needed a policeman to push the deal, now would they? And the money they paid me? That was taken from my neighbours. Who’ll compensate them? The Lords won’t pay them!” Jonathan shook his head in bewilderment. “You said that it was all part of a master plan?” “Ha! A master plan!” the woman said sarcastically. “That’s a plan that belongs to whoever has political power. If I spent my life in politics, then I’d be able to impose my plans on everyone else. Then I could steal houses instead of building them. It’s so much easier!”
“But surely you need a plan in order to have a wisely built town?” said Jonathan hopefully. He tried to find a logical explanation for her plight. “Shouldn’t you trust the Council to come up with such a
plan?” She waved her hand at the row houses. “Go see for yourself. The worst plans are the few that they actually complete – shoddy, costly, and ugly.” Turning to face Jonathan, she looked him straight in the eye. “Think of this. They built a sports stadium where nine of every ten spectators can’t see the field of play. Because of their shoddy work, it cost twice as much to repair as it cost to build in the first place!
And their great meeting hall is only available to visitors, not for the taxpayers who paid for it. Who did the planning? The Lords. They get their names emblazoned in stone and their friends get fat contracts.”
Jabbing a finger into Jonathan’s chest, she declared, “Only foolish plans have to be forced on people. Force never earned my trust!” Fuming, she glared back at her house. “They haven’t heard the last from me!”
• When is it OK for the government to take a house away from someone?
• What is the problem with superior ownership, or eminent domain?
• If an official can use, control, take, or destroy a house that another person builds, then who really owns the house?
• Can private initiative provide better and cheaper buildings?
• Is a property tax like rent?
• Ethical issues?
Vast stretches of land in all countries are owned by the state. Yet, the state has the power to take anyone’s property if it is claimed to be “for the common good”. State officials set the price unilaterally. If you resist, the state has the power to forcefully remove you. So, who really owns the land? In theory, your property is any possession owned by you. This can be your house, your farm, your toy, your book, or your car. To own something is to have control over what you do with it. In fact, you may do what you like with it as long as you do not harm others. You may use your property any way you wish. This includes your right to decide not to sell or to sell voluntarily at a profit. If you do not have control over your property, then it cannot really be yours even though you built it or paid for it. You are but a “renter” or a “borrower” from the real master – the higher authority. A look at the queues at your local licensing office will tell you how much your community is being controlled and forced to conform to regulations. A further disadvantage of licenses is that they are left to the whim of officials. If an official feels so inclined, he or she has the power to delay an application until a more “convenient” time. This power puts him in a good position to consider a bribe. In Costa Rica there is a saying, which translates as “where there is a license there is a sausage (a bribe).” Licences and regulations stiﬂe progress. It is no accident that countries with the most restrictions experience the least economic growth. The situation is different if a group of people voluntarily reaches an agreement to mutually coordinate their property or housing plans. The difference is that it is voluntary – unlike government plans where one group imposes its will upon all others.
To know more about the book: http://www.jonathangullible.com/
Commentary by Janette Elridge
You may purchase the print edition of this book from The Liberty Institute, New Delhi.
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