I came across a piece on the BBC news website recently about a farmer in the UK who is being threatened with imprisonment by the State unless he demolishes the “mock Tudor castle” (a sizeable house that has castle-like features) he built on his own farm land without planning permission.
This unjust use of compulsion by the State against an individual whose actions did not restrict anyone else’s freedoms serves as a reminder of the reality that the old saying “an Englishman’s home is his castle” is simply not true in modern societies where, to an increasing degree, citizens may only act by permission of the majority. Every time an instance of State compulsion like this occurs we get a glimpse of the true moral face of democracy – mob rule.
The mob has spoken. It looks lovely but you rather rudely didn’t get our permission to build on your land, so I’m afraid we must insist that you tear it down or we’ll throw you in jail – sorry about that. Oh and one last thing. Please don’t make lots of noise and do dispose of all the rubble in an environmentally friendly manner now won’t you! Ta.
The BBC headlined the article “Surrey farmer accepts castle must be demolished“, which is deceiving because it implies that the owner admits his ‘guilt’ and thus accepts the punishment being imposed upon him by the State (and by proxy the mob-jority). Which in turn seems to offer justification for the State’s actions. This headline is also a way of stating that this man (like any man would) prefers freedom to being thrown in a cage by the government – without actually saying it. Exploiting the elasticity of language in order to weasel out of stating some fact directly is often a sign that someone is, consciously or not, finding the truth too uncomfortable to face.
Clearly, the only reason this Surrey farmer has ‘chosen’ to spend time and money demolishing his own beloved house is simply because he prefers freedom to being in a cage. He has not accepted that what he did was wrong, and so he shouldn’t. He is merely choosing the course of action which harms him the least. He would of course prefer to avoid both courses of action, but alas he is not free to do so. Even if he mustered the courage to endure imprisonment it wouldn’t save his little castle from destruction because the Council would have it torn down (in the most expensive way possible) and then send him the bill. Suffering the hell of a State rape factory would be pointless.
If a group of people have the legal right to compel a man under threat of imprisonment to demolish his own property, then what does it actually mean for us to say that we own our homes and the land they occupy? Not much, really. Something, yes, but not as much as it should.
In order to be a universal ethical principle, ownership must translate into having the exclusive right to determine how one’s property (including land) is used, which is achieved in practice by having the moral and legal right to use force against anyone who prevents you from doing so. This right does exist in our social system, but not universally. Instead of being a constant flow, it’s as if rights in today’s societies are controlled by a tap, which only the State can turn on and off. The tap is on at all times except for when the State is the one violating an individual’s property rights – as in the case of our Surrey farmer. In these moments, morality flips 180 degrees and the victim finds himself on the wrong side of the law and a criminal if he attempts to enforce his exclusive right to control his own property. It’s like living in a house where every now and then the floor suddenly becomes the ceiling. It’s enough to make your head spin.
Ownership should always translate into the exclusive right to act upon your own property or land. This is what it must mean in order that property rights in any given society aren’t forever vulnerable to being legally whisked away like a rug from under our feet by a group of people in State power.
Sure, we can sell or rent our houses and decorate/furnish their interiors as we please (i.e. without having to have someone else’s permission). But this is not because we have genuine property rights. It is because, lucky for us, the current government happens to have no desire to prevent us from doing these things with our own property. However, if any future incumbents of the seats of State power believe that these freedoms must be sacrificed for the “good of everyone”, then they will most probably have no trouble creating the laws that will enable them to do so.
Think about that for a moment. We can only do (most of) what we want with our houses and the land they occupy because the State allows us to. But ownership by permission is not real ownership. It’s a sort of approximation, the best that can be achieved in a social system where one entity (the State) must violate generally accepted moral laws in order to maintain its exclusive legal right to enforce them.
At the end of the BBC’s article the farmer’s local Council are quoted as saying: “The Secretary of State’s decision demonstrates that people who ignore planning rules set for the good of everyone, are likely to find themselves in this unfortunate position.”
Actually, what this demonstrates is the reality that the State is the king of every individual’s castle. It is the final arbiter for what happens on every square inch of land under its jurisdiction, no matter whose name is on the title deeds. When it comes to planning laws, property rights are effectively null and void. In this kind of social system, where property rights can be obliterated at any moment by the State, ownership can never mean everything it should mean.
Planning rules cannot be for the “good of everyone” because this would mean that coercing a man into demolishing his own property is for his own good, which it clearly isn’t since he does not want to do it. No, planning rules only benefit those who wish to use coercive means to prevent others from using their own land in ways which they would prefer they didn’t. Far from being a way of achieving social harmony or good, it’s a way to enforce preferences (not rights) at the point of a gun. This is a truth, however, that few have realised and accepted, and for the most part we’re still in denial about.
The Council said that if the house were allowed to remain it would set an “unacceptable precedent for development in the green belt.” Unacceptable to whom? To all those who do not want anyone to build on the green belt, of course. But why do their subjective preferences supersede the genuine rights of those individuals who actually own the land? Because, as a special interest group, they have leveraged the power of democracy to gain unjust legal privileges and control over others. Democracy, majority rule, enables any one or any group of people to acquire the powers of a king. Which in practice enables the enactment of an infinite variety of well-intentioned tyranny. As Lord Acton once observed, it’s much worse to be ruled by a majority than a minority.
Our society proudly declares that this farmer is the owner of his land, but it also, in certain circumstances, even more proudly declares that he is most certainly not the owner of his land and does not have the right to decide how it is used. Which is it? It cannot be both. Rights must be absolute otherwise they are not fit for purpose and are doomed to be used for immoral ends if they do not apply to all people at all times and at all places.
This magical ‘now you see them now you don’t’ rights system is a murky middle ground of mindless contradictions that provides a clear logical path to the gradual total erosion of all property rights. For if it is wise for the State to sometimes have the moral and legal right to be only one who decides how any given individual’s land is used, then, if history is anything to go by, it’s only a matter of time before the collectivist intellectual winds blow strongly enough in the direction of the logical conclusion: that it would be wisest for the State to always have this right and power. Once we reach that point we will arrive at full State ownership of all land and all property. Here there is no liberty and therefore there can only be economic and social decay.
That’s the worse case scenario. It might seem improbable, but we must never forget that it has happened to the most prosperous and advanced civilisations of the past. Destroyed, one way or another, by well-intentioned but unthinking tyranny disguised as virtue and executed through the coercive apparatus of the State; set into a process of decay by the steady shrinking of individual liberty.
If we can navigate our way towards a future society where there is no group of people who have the legal power to force individuals to demolish their own property under threat of imprisonment, which would be a society founded upon the universal non-aggression principle, then an Englishman’s home truly would be his castle. And peaceful, cooperative, contractual solutions would be found where once the brute force of mob rule reigned.