[Editor’s Note: The following is a guest contribution by Felix Bungay, a student at the University of Cambridge reading an MPhil in Intellectual History and Political Thought.]
While many Bleeding Heart Libertarians are interested in Rawls, not many of them seem enamoured with his idea of a Property Owning Democracy (POD). I want to argue that those of us on the classical liberal right can look to Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative tradition of POD to provide an alternative interpretation of the POD presented in Rawls’s theory. I want to argue for a more free market interpretation of POD, one that is compatible with Rawls’s two principles of justice and that draws on the free market policies of Margaret Thatcher, rather than the traditional POD inspired by James Meade that is associated with Rawls.
Kevin Vallier helpfully summed up the traditional Rawlsian conception of POD, as defended by Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson. But here in the UK, the term POD is actually much more associated with the Conservative party than with John Rawls. The term POD was coined by a Conservative MP, Noel Skelton, in the 1920’s and was referenced frequently by two Conservative Prime Ministers – Anthony Eden and Margaret Thatcher.
Some on the left claim that in contrast to Rawls’s vision for a POD, the Conservative Thatcherite tradition of POD was explicitly anti-egalitarian. This was not the case, and Thatcher was keen to defend her economic policies on Rawlsian terms; that they were of the greatest benefit to the least well off.
In Thatcher’s last Prime Minister’s Questions (video above), the Liberal Democrat MP, Simon Hughes and the SNP MP, Jim Sillars, would attack Mrs Thatcher along these lines. Hughes raised the following point: “There is no doubt that the Prime Minister, in many ways, has achieved substantial success. There is one statistic, however, that I understand is not challenged, and that is that, during her 11 years as Prime Minister, the gap between the richest 10 per cent and the poorest 10 per cent in this country has widened substantially. At the end of her chapter of British politics, how can she say that she can justify the fact that many people in a constituency such as mine are relatively much poorer, much less well housed and much less well provided for than they were in 1979? Surely she accepts that that is not a record that she or any Prime Minister can be proud of?”
Thatcher’s reply amounted to the ‘levelling down objection’ with a Rawlsian ‘difference principle’ flavour. “People on all levels of income are better off than they were in 1979. The hon. Gentleman is saying that he would rather that the poor were poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That way one will never create the wealth for better social services, as we have. What a policy. Yes, he would rather have the poor poorer, provided that the rich were less rich.” She continued on this theme when she replied to Jim Sillars: “I think that I must have hit the right nail on the head when I pointed out that the logic of those [socialist] policies is that they would rather the poor were poorer. Once they start to talk about the gap, they would rather that the gap were that—[indicating]—down here, not this—[indicating higher, but bigger gap]—but—[indicating lower, but smaller gap] So long as the gap is smaller, they would rather have the poor poorer. One does not create wealth and opportunity that way. One does not create a property-owning democracy that way.”
When we think of the best ways to practically achieve the aims of POD, the policies of Margaret Thatcher provide a superior free market alternative to the ‘tax and redistribute’ policies traditionally associated with Rawls’s POD. Thatcher was determined that home ownership should be for the many, not just the few. “Our concern,” she said, “is to create a property owning democracy and it is therefore a very human concern. It is a natural desire of Conservatives that every family should have a stake in society and that the privilege of a family home should not be restricted to the few.” To achieve this goal, Thatcher introduced the Right to Buy. The Right to Buy allowed the tenants of Government owned housing to buy their homes, transforming them from state dependents into independent property owners. This policy was by far the Thatcher government’s most memorable and popular, and the one which would see the term POD become distinctly entwined with her time in power.
However, Rawls’s POD requires more than citizens being able to own their homes; more importantly it entails the widespread ownership of productive property. Through privatising state owned industries, the Thatcher Government enabled millions to become share owners for the first time. Ownership of capital would no longer be something for investment bankers and the wealthy, but something millions of ordinary Britons would have a stake in. Thatcher sold off dozens of state owned industries to the public. This not only widened share ownership but returned loss-making state industries to the private sector, where instead of needing large government subsidies they soon became profitable again.
During Thatcher’s time in power and in the subsequent Major Government, the Conservatives were able to go a long way towards delivering their vision for a POD. The 1997 Conservative Manifesto set out the party’s progress towards a POD after 18 years in power. “It is ownership which brings true security and genuine independence from the state. That is why Conservatives have long dreamed of a property-owning democracy. Now we are delivering it in practice. Home ownership is up by 4.7 million. 10 million people own a direct personal stake in our economy. 16 million are gaining shares in their building societies thanks to our deregulation of them. We intend to carry forward our vision of a people’s share.” The Conservatives had spread wealth and property ownership not by heavy taxation and economic intervention, but through privatisation and deregulation.
All of this isn’t to say that Thatcher and the Conservatives were proto Bleeding Heart Libertarians. They were not. Instead, I hope I have given a brief sketch of the work I am currently undertaking, looking both at Rawls and post war British political economy. There is still much work to done in fleshing out a POD that draws on the free market ideas of Thatcher while still fulfilling the terms of Rawls’s two principles of justice – I do hope that other Bleeding Heart Libertarians will join in the task. Nevertheless, I hope it has been an interesting introduction to the ideas much richer history beyond the Rawlsian left, as well as showing that classical liberals need not reject POD but can instead embrace a more free market version of it.