Don't let politics decide land use
"Go for it, Rodney. I would not invest in this country the way it is."Featured comment
Last week "Rastus" took me to task in comments at NBR ONLINE for writing that people should have next to no say about how you use your own land and resources.
He explained that if he owned 2000ha of high country he shouldn’t be free to burn it bare and let it erode. He likewise said he shouldn’t be allowed to strip his topsoil until none is left and the land is useless in the future.
“We should all have a say as to how land is used… You are the caretaker of it and no more.”
It sounds good, it sounds caring and most Kiwis would agree with the sentiment. But sounding good, caring and agreeable doesn’t make a proposition true, correct or even sensible.
What Rastus omitted is how “we” all get to have a say. It’s hard to imagine a meeting of four million souls to decide what to do with 2000ha.
And why should the use of 2000ha just concern Kiwis? The entire world should be at the meeting. And future generations. Oh, and don’t forget other species.
That’s the absurdity of the proposition that everyone should have a say.
It is a practical impossibility. And so the “we” is not “us” but the people’s elected representatives. It makes a big difference to the proposition when the “we” is replaced with “government” or “politics.” As in, “government should have a say how land is used”. Or “politics should decide land use”.
But that’s what the proposition boils down to.
The proper question is not whether we should all be having a say but whether government or private landowners should decide land use.
Private landowners have always and everywhere proved superior to government. There’s a simple reason for this: landowners have every incentive to care for and maintain their land. If they don’t, it won’t be worth much.
Landowners don’t strip-mine their soil and render their land useless for the future because it’s a valuable asset. They don’t want to destroy it.
Governments have no such incentive. It has historically been governments that have overused and abused natural resources, not private landowners.
The worst example was the eastern bloc countries, which were environmental basket cases and where all land was state-owned.
Here in New Zealand privately owned land is far better cared for and far more productive than land owned by the Department of Conservation.
When the government gets it wrong, the entire country is affected. Government subsidies to cultivate marginal land destroyed habitat, eroded land and cost money. Private landowners can get it wrong, too, but it’s only the land they own that they affect and, if they are devaluing the resource, they will be bought out.
The real trouble of government having a say over land use is the uncertainty.
Farmers with patches of bush on their land may want to keep it as valuable habitat. But they run the risk that the local council will take control of that bush through planning controls and turn an asset for the farmer into a liability.
That threat greatly diminishes the incentive to care for and manage environmental amenities.
I used to think the problem with political decision-making was that politicians only looked ahead to the next election. I now know that politicians looking past tonight’s TV news is long-term planning.
But the problem is not how best to look after the environment. The real problem is the greedy desire of people like Rastus, who want to have a say over how land is used with none of the responsibility of ownership.