What does it mean to have a right to a particular piece of property? This is a useful question. Understanding the way in which you conceptualise property rights can be an instructive way of gaining a fuller understanding of your own political intuitions. For example, in my pocket there is a pen, which I own. To me, this means that if society consisted of only you and I, then saying I own something is tantamount to saying you and I have agreed that the pen should be mine. If we expand this into real world, to say I have the property right associated with that object effectively means that we have all agreed that I should own the pen. Of course, going through an adjudication process for every single object in the world would be time consuming, and so we have devised a set of principles from which you can derive the ownership of any given object. We call these ‘laws’.

Other political philosophies have a very different understanding of property rights. Rather than being the subject of mutual agreement, they are instead moral rights ultimately derived from the self. They can be understood as a relation between a person P and an object X such that P has the exclusive right to determine a range of X’s parameters, and countermanding this is wrong.

On this model, property rights are ultimately derived from the self; you own yourself, and any wealth you create is yours as a result of being derived from that fundamental ownership. My pen is mine because I exchanged money I earned through my labour for it in a free and fair exchange.

However, this way of thinking about property rights is fundamentally weird. As given above, property rights are a relationship between the possessed and the possessor. ‘Self-ownership’ can only fit into this model in an odd way. Either the self has at least two parts, one of which owns the other, or the relationship is somehow reflexive.

On the former description, self-ownership is tantamount to the mind owning the body, and the two being distinct things in order to allow this relationship to work. This is quite a claim, and going down this path commits adherents to a rather strong form of dualism, with all the problems that implies. It also has an extra problem: to make it work, adherents would need to find a way of demonstrating that the controlling relationship between the mind and the body is different to other forms of possession inasmuch as it is necessary; i.e. the mind necessarily owns the body and is inextricable from that relationship. Without this being the case, the adherent is trapped in a regressive argument – ownership is derived from the mind, but the mind does not own itself, so there must be at least two distinct entitities within it and so on, ad infinitum. To avoid this, a person advocating a dualist form of self-ownership must find a way of avoiding Cartesian doubt to demonstrate the necessity of that self-ownership. Needless to say, that is quite a challenge.

The latter description, that of a reflexive relationship in which the self owns the self, is perhaps even more puzzling. I fully understand what it means for me to own a pen. I can write with it, place it in a pen jar for safe-keeping, balance it on my top lip when bored of writing, and even destroy it if I choose. All these things are a clear relationship between myself and an object; when this relationship does not exist, what comprises ownership?

Perhaps if we are to understand the reflexive self-ownership model more sympathetically, we should think of it less as a relationship and more of a question of determination. I determine the parameters of my pen; what it writes, when writes, and where it is kept. Similarly, I determine the parameters of myself; when I eat, when I sleep, and what I say. If we adjust the language we use here slightly so we avoid even implicit reference to dualism, we can say that these parameters determine themselves. Self-determining parameters are therefore what is required to make this reflexive model work.

We can therefore see this as a ‘tree’ of parameters: these self-determining parameters also determine these other parameters (the pen). We could then say that this relationship of determination adequately captures what we mean when we say self-ownership, and hence property rights. However, it does not seem to do so satisfactorily: we have not defined a relationship of work, the moral intuition which this form of property rights appeals to, but rather a causal relationship between the self and the world that requires other moral clauses laid on top of it to get property rights out. If a collection of self-determining parameters hits another collection of self-determining parameters and takes a parameter-bearing object from them, then, causally, that object is now theirs. This is not what we normally consider to be property rights.

This reveals, perhaps, the greatest flaw in self-ownership models of property rights: despite claiming that property rights are derived from self-ownership, they in fact require additional moral suppositions in order to work. Given that each of these suppositions are open to question in turn, this model would appear to rest on very precarious foundations indeed. On balance, I would prefer to stick to convincing other people that I should be allowed pens.


I’m in Wales taking the role of an expert on windpower for a consultation by National Grid on grid extensions for new windfarms. You’ll probably be thinking, “Wow, thrilling stuff!”, and you’d be right to think that – especially if you live here.

This development will have a significant impact on the lives of people around it, and no-one is pretending otherwise. The purpose of the consultation is to minimise that impact via the feedback of local people. My role is to put the broader case for the expansion of windpower to give attendees an understanding as to why this work is being carried out.

During the course of this, I’ve noticed something interesting, something I would describe as a potential market failure. The biggest opposition to the proposals comes from a demographic labelled ‘white settlers’ – people who’ve moved out to rural areas, normally from England and normally after retirement.

They’ve bought property out here for various reasons, but the ones I hear cited most often are the quiet and scenery, both of which will be impacted by new pylons and the construction work around them. They say this will affect the price of their property.

The interesting thing – and what I’d describe as a market failure – is that if this does occur it’ll do so without impacting the actual bearer of that value – namely, their house. It will remain the same collection of bricks and mortar as it did when they bought it. The actual property right they bought – the right to their house – has nothing to do with the environment in which it is situated and yet the market behaves as if this is the case.

There are a collection of legal rights associated with living in a particular place, around noise and pollution and so in, but they are attached to persons, not to property, and so have a quite different status. You don’t buy the right to a quiet life by moving out to the country, but the market behaves as if you do.

While some may simply shrug and say ‘Caveat emptor’, that’s not an appropriate response – people feel genuinely betrayed that their purchase hasn’t entitled them to the environment they expected. Is there a possible solution?

I would argue that we need to separate out particular rights relating to amenity explicitly, and confer on them the status of a community right attached to a property. You would not be required to purchase that right if you bought a property, but you would then have no recourse if that right were transgressed by an external party. Developers could then purchase, say, the right to an average level of background noise as a consequence of a particular development, or lease it over a period of construction. This would offset the impact on property values that would otherwise occur, assuming a market rate were paid, and smooth the process of gaining consent for a development.

While it may be objected that such a system would be unbearably complicated, those objecting have clearly never encountered the planning system. We need a mechanism to ensure that the relationship between property rights and nearby development is transparent and equitable, and as a good liberal I’d say expanding the scope of property rights is the way to do it.

…for property, that is, and it’s one that’s illustrated by his 10-minute rule bill that’s he’s speaking to as I write this. The idea is that the law should be changed to prevent banks from lending out any money you deposit with them without your consent, as legally when you deposit any funds they become the bank’s money. This means that banks can lend out your money even if they don’t have enough money to pay you back. Under Carswell’s scheme, this would be changed to banks being required to ask you if they could lend out your money, and otherwise merely holding on deposit until you collect it.

This notion is called ‘honest money’ and is derived from the work of the Cobden Centre, a libertarian think-tank. And it stands in astonishing contradiction to the rest of libertarian thought; which revolves around the idea that the private sector always knows best and that Government should stay out the interests of private concerns as much as possible. This is a clear state intervention in the banking market, ostensibly on the side of the little guy who’s being taken advantage of by these terrible, terrible banks.

The problem is that banks are a business. They do what they do for profit. Under Carswell’s scheme, say you’re on Jobseeker’s Allowance and are receiving £60 per week. Thanks to the largely free banking system we have in this country, you could immediately deposit that in a bank without incurring any cost. However, under Carswell’s scheme, the bank would incur a cost for taking your money (staff time, processing etc.) but be unable to make a profit on it unless you consented to allow them to lend it out. Why on earth, in that case, would the bank want to handle your money? They’d either charge you a handling fee or simply refuse to take deposits from those who want to retain full rights over their money. In practice, therefore, the £60 would become perhaps £58 per week, unless you gave up your property rights in a way which seems anathema to Carswell.

The upshot is that the little guy would be in the same situation as he is now, as the least well-off can’t afford a handling fee for the use of banks. They’d either be excluded from the financial system altogether or give up their rights. This is a logical consequence of banks being profit-making entities.

This bill seems to be the result of the fetishisation of property rights – the near-worship of property itself – to the point where they overwhelm the interests of the least well-off. But as I’ve said before, that’s what libertarianism is all about.

Section 1: The Argument

While much of the left continues to fight amongst itself over how it should react to the fact that its political wing doesn’t even have a whisker of power any more, the centre-right coalition that currently governs the country is busy reshaping it in its own image. This is no surprise; all parties do this when they’re in office. The problem is that arguing entirely within a left-wing context means that your arguments have little purchase beyond your immediate ideological buddies, inevitably weakening the left’s eventual response to the new age of austerity. As an avowed centrist who fundamentally dislikes any one side of the debate getting too much power, I’d like to sketch out an argument that the left can use to demonstrate the moral necessity of progressive taxation using the language and principles of right-wing libertarianism.

It revolves around the peculiar interplay between the notion of a strong moral right to property and inheritance tax – or, as it’s been relabelled by the right-wing campaigners on the rather patronising assumption that Daily Mail readers won’t understand that ‘inheritance’ involves people dying, the Death Tax. I think this new nomenclature should be embraced; indeed, it should be extended. I propose instead of an inheritance tax, we work towards a Death & Destruction Tax.

The argument is this. To the right, your moral right to property is derived from your work to achieve it (“I worked hard for my money, and I deserve to be able to spend it any way I like”). This isn’t anything to do with a labour theory of value, of course – the quantity of money you are due in accordance with your work is set by the market. Your moral right to property is partly determined by the purchasing choices of other people, to illustrate one of the bizarre contradictions inherent in this way of thinking.

Within this framework, inheritance tax can be construed as an evil (“I worked to give my children a better life, and the state shouldn’t take that away by force.”). The state does not have a right to the products of your work, as moral rights to property are determined by that work – assuming, as seems reasonable, that right-wing viewpoints tend towards a night watchman state.

However, the notion of moral rights to property (as opposed to legal rights) begins to break down at death. You’ve transferred your assets to your offspring, but the original moral right that says it would be wrong to take away those assets is still derived from your work, not your offspring’s. The notion of a transferable moral right in this context is peculiar in itself – you can transfer the moral right to property through voluntary exchange or donation, but the source of that right remains yourself. Therefore, when disposing of your assets at death, the wealth you are rightfully able to pass on is determined by the work you’ve done to create it. These assets come in two forms: wealth-generating assets (land, industrial plant, stocks & shares) and liquidity (i.e. cash or some other bearer of value). Since the moral right determining the ownership of these assets is derived from your work, that moral right is limited by any destruction of assets your work has entailed.

This is because the balance between the liquidity derived from overexploiting wealth-producing assets and the liquidity derived from sustainably exploiting those assets is not necessarily equivalent. Say a forest contains 100 trees, and expands at a rate of 10 trees per year. The price of lumber equivalent to a tree is £10. You can earn £100 per year exploiting the forest in a sustainable fashion. However, if the price of lumber rises to £20 per tree, you could chop down the entire forest in a single year for a return of £2,000 – a figure it would’ve otherwise taken you 20 years to achieve.

Once that 20 years is up, however, you’re making a loss on the asset. However, you don’t care, as you’re now dead, and we’re considering whether you should be liable for destroying assets that could’ve otherwise generated wealth.

It’s pretty clear under this notion of moral right that you are, certainly morally culpable for destroying wealth-producing assets: you’re free to do what you wish with your property when you’re alive, but on death any future owner of those assets has had their ability to generate wealth harmed by your action, and since under this notion of moral rights you can only pass on the wealth you’ve worked to generate, you can’t pass on wealth you’ve destroyed.

The basis of an inheritance tax – or, as I prefer, a Death & Destruction Tax – should be the value of sustainable wealth-producing assets you’ve destroyed over the course of your life. A night watchman state should seek reparations for the destruction of assets belonging to other people – and necessarily, on your death, those assets will belong to other people. However, those reparations can’t go to those you’ve specified will receive your wealth – this is a reparative measure, and therefore reparations must go to all potential future holders of your assets, as eventually your heirs will die too. This means the broader population, in some way to be determined by some form of collective expression of their will. We could call it the state.

Section 2: Implications & Objections

Destruction of sustainable assets is a broad term – it clearly doesn’t cover digging up ores or even oil, but it does cover environmental damage as a consequence of those activities, as well as over-farming, over-fishing, watershed destruction and – of course – emitting gases that will adversely affect the environment. You’d clearly be liable for any of those – but you’d also be liable for any destruction engendered by your action, such as companies you’ve invested in performing any similar activities.

There is, therefore, a risk of double payment: if this measure or a similar one were implemented, green taxes on emissions of industry in which you’ve invested would reduce your rate of return while simultaneously making you liable for D&D. It’s possible that any implementation of this tax would need to consider the role of other taxes in this system when considering which assets were liable.

This leads on to another obvious objection: this tax would be overly complicated and bureaucratic to collect. However, setting it in a contemporary context, this isn’t so clear – much of the work around the sustainability of assets like fisheries is already being done, and environmental audits for major companies are relatively commonplace. It may be the case that it’s more difficult to identify ownership of assets reaching significantly far back into the past, and therefore any implementation may need to consider a cut-off period for asset checks – perhaps ten years before death, or when actuarial tables indicate that the probability of surviving beyond a particular age begins to look dicey.

Implementation would certainly entail a switch in pension funds away from enterprises involving overexploitation of assets and into sustainably-managed businesses, like renewable energy (disclaimer: I work in the renewables industry). It would most likely lead to a sudden dumping of overexploited assets on the market – which, in the case ruined farmland, may make them cheap enough to permit restoration work.

Overall, the tax would force a reconsideration of one’s long-term impact on the world, by forcing you to work out what you really would leave when you’re gone. It also demonstrates that taxation at death can be a moral imperative for any state – regardless the role one attributes to it.