Monday, June 19, 2006

More on Freedom to Leave You House Empty

Liberty is a great concept, but it has flaws. Allowing one set of people to do as they please can be the cause of great pain to another group. We can all identify the restrictions on our own freedoms but are often slow to identify how our actions restrict the freedoms of others.

Jonathan’s post last week discussed how owners of empty homes can sometimes fall victim to this form of myopia. I have had two phonecalls today that illustrate the point. Firstly a property owner from the West Midlands who like Jonathan’s caller last week insisted that as the owner of a house it was his right to do what ever he wanted with it including leaving it empty. I took another call earlier from somebody who lives next to an empty house and has had to put up with damp coming through the wall, rampant weeds spilling over the fence into her garden and a dislodged slate from the empty house falling into her garden near to where her daughter plays.

This may be a bit philosophical for a Monday morning but I can’t help but refer to the great 19th Century British thinker John Stuart Mill who’s work “On Liberty" discussed the limits of power that the state can have over the individual. His brilliant concept was the harm principle. Briefly it said that people should be free to engage in whatever behavior they wish as long as it does not harm others.
Seen through this principle the owner of the empty home of course has rights but not unlimited rights. Once it starts harming others whether that be though restricting housing to those that need it, spoiling the appearance of a street or loose slates falling onto playing children the state should and does have the right to intervene.


  1. The sheer incoherence of your argument is breathtaking. To justify seizing private property, you invoke piffle about 'liberty having flaws', and how the exercise of one's liberties can 'cause pain' to another.

    You, sir, are the epitome of the nanny state run amok. Orwell would've laughed in your face. You've taken Mills' principle and deranged it--consciously, I suspect--to justify seizure and use of another's property if in your subjective opinion some inchoate, unquantifiable 'harm' is caused.

    By that standard, one can arbitrarily claim that ANY action by another causes 'harm' and that ANY possession of property causes 'harm'.

    Mill's insight was that 'harm' is caused by a 'positive' action against another; it is not a 'harm' to own a house that goes unoccupied, since the other party is not affected in any way--in legal terms, has no 'standing' in the matter.

    By your 'logic' (it isn't), anyone can now claim to have been caused 'harm' by another's possessions or situation in life, and demand that the State 'do something about it.

    Insanity. Time for Labour and all its works to be tossed out of government.

  2. i bet you wouldn't say that if the house next door to yours was attracting rats into your back garden and depreciating the value of your property

  3. Thank you anon and anon. 1st anon I visited a semi-detached house earlier this year that had been empty for more than 10 years. It had been set on fire three times, tonnes of putrid rubbish had been dumped in the front garden, bits of masonry had fallen off, and the local youth had adopted it as their playground causing mayhem in it until the early hours. I don’t know what your definition of harm is but the elderly couple who lived next door certainly felt that they were experiencing it.