Block of flats in Harlow, Essex, UK

Intellectual property

Is our attachment to property an impediment to housing people? Yes, argues Moore

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Christopher Nolan’s biopic of Oppenheimer offered up a great shibboleth of online leftism. In the film, the titular character summarises the philosophy of Marx as “Ownership is theft and so on”. He’s corrected by his squeeze-to-be Jean Tatlock, who says “Property is theft”.

But as ever-online academics were quick to point out, this slogan was actually coined by Pierre Joseph Proudhon. Duh. But not a minor slip, it turns out. Marx, legendarily dismissive of his contemporaries, saved particular opprobrium for Proudhon, with whom he disagreed at a fundamental philosophical level.

Property: The Myth That Built the World
Rowan Moore
(Faber, £14.99)

In his history of the philosophy of property, Rowan Moore gives prominence to the Levellers, a religious group who advocated shared use of the land in early communist communities. Marx, in a similar tone to his rejection of Proudhon, dubbed their values “crude communism”, which he said emerged from envy and “levelling-down”. Marx preferred the approach of Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume — for whom Moore has less time.

Hume imagined a world of plenty where “jealousy of interest, which justice supposes, could no longer have place,” Adam Smith, in turn, acknowledged that man’s harnessing of nature could lead to a world of plenty. Society, however, creates artificial scarcity, leading to social hierarchies that prompt man to better his position in society. Smith cynically believed that scarcity had a social purpose, even if he believed it to be ultimately a mirage.

Throughout this otherwise fascinating book, I found myself on the opposite side to the writer on the fault line between abundance and scarcity, missing the counsel not just of Marx but also of mid-twentieth-century capitalist thinkers such as Buckminster Fuller. Would Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme have been so utterly calamitous if profits from sales had gone into building replacements?

Private property does not manage scarcity; it provides legal and social protection that social rents do not. Property is not contingent. Why not grant this immutability to the poorest in our society? As Marx said, “communism is the positive expression of annulled private property — at first as universal private property”.

Our planning system gives power to those who wish to stop development

This, of course, is not an empty historical argument. Moore has used his role within the strangely hesitant architectural profession to launch a much-needed debate about how we might massively expand our housing stock. On the cusp of an election, we are also at a point when “jealousy of interest” is at its height, and when Centre for Cities estimates that we have a shortfall of around 4.3 million homes, compared with other European countries.

Is our attachment to property an impediment to housing people? Yes, argues Moore: one of the great contributors of the 2008 financial crisis was the abundance of capital that had to seek out stupid investments. He evocatively charts the elephantiastic way that mega-basements, gated communities and emirs buying gargantuan mansions in London have changed Britain. More than ever, property has entrenched “divisions between those that have it and those that do not”.

And yet, as any millennial who cannot rely on their parents to help them with a deposit will tell you, the problem with property is not abundance, it is scarcity. In short, our planning system first gives power to those who wish to stop development, and secondly to those wealthy organisations, such as volume housebuilders, who can weather these protests and provide a limited number of homes whilst controlling supply and therefore price. Any account of how property has become an asset class that doesn’t address this impasse can only ever be partial.

Moore makes abundantly clear that we need new towns and more social housing, but that these are both exceptions to normal, restricted conditions. Although new towns succeed when capturing the uptick in land values, they are, as Moore points out, created by acts of parliament. Mass social housing in the UK was delivered when local authorities, ideologically aligned to central government, accepted funds to confer planning permission on themselves. Plenty is the exception rather than the rule.

The alternative to this is not some free-for-all anarchy, but a system which demands that councils offer sites for building, and that smaller developers are allowed to build without facing business-threatening delays due to protest campaigns. The real theft of property is not that it parcels out a prelapsarian commons; it is the misery caused by our planning culture which pretends it is scarce. Until we become permissive rather than restrictive, as is the case in other countries — until we embrace abundance — this problem will endure.

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