Rather than imagining they are powerful citizens, the ultra rich prefer to believe that they are naturally unconstrained and owe little to individual states. They fantasise that they roam the world like Captain Nemo, and assume they have far more rights than duties.
At the root of the problem of modern capitalist societies are the concepts governing property rights and duties. There should be limits set to what can be owned and what cannot be owned. Effectively, nothing is ever really fully privately owned, all property is a lease from the state. You may buy your island from a country, but you are not buying a country.
Instead of simply re-nationalisating, though a few re-nationalisations wouldn't go amiss, we should reformulate property law. The problem with nationalisation is the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons. In other words, if no one owns something - fishing areas in international waters, for example - then that resource is exploited and exhausted. On a collectivised farm everything goes to pot and no one takes full responsibility for maintenance.
What is the value of property ownership itself? Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was wrong when he said 'Property is theft.' Property is not just theft. Clearly there is some value to it. Property owners look after their property. Property ownership generates value; call it the value of good husbandry. When you complete a transaction, the good husbandry of property has a price tag. It is called Goodwill and people will pay well over the odds for it. Good ownership creates identity, cohesiveness and permanence. It is worthwhile.
But ultimately, all property is merely leasehold from a legitimate national democratic state. At a deep level property is is not an inalienable right, it is a right that depends on the agreement of others. Ownership is tolerated and the only full ownership - in the people's name - can be by a democratic state so long as that state lasts. Property changes hands when the state changes hands. From a constitutional monarchy to a republic, for example.
The public highway, the coastline, beaches, land held in trust. These are examples of things whose ownership should be by the state and not by individuals or corporations. Individuals and corporate ownership would create privileged access and bottlenecks.
I would like to suggest a new approach.
We need to extend the notion of property duties fully. It seems to me that the duties of property owners have somehow been scaled back and in many cases rescinded. There are effective ways of doing this.
Essentially property ownership is a civil right, like other civil rights. However, contrast the way the rights and duties of property holders are handled with the way other civil rights and duties are handled. The duties of property owners seem far too 'negotiable' and flexible.
Parliament should have more to say on your property duties. Property ownership should be treated as other citizens' rights and duties are treated. In other words, the way the government upholds property duties is more like one of the foundation stones of a society and less like an economic lever to be manipulated as an incentive.
There are limits to ownership. Ownership carries with it solemn duties so long as the owner is part of a nation state and not outside it like Captain Nemo. If you are going to have a state which permits the ownership of private property, then you had better sort out property rights and make sure the property owners meet their obligations and that, for example, they pay all their taxes and do not pollute.
The reality of ownership should be more like a software license. For example. If you own a certain number of shares in a company then you you should be licensed to use those shares in a defined set of circumstances, just as a software license holder would be.
Use this concept of extending a license, for example, in order to limit and regulate speculative activity in the financial and commodity markets. Curtail property rights that are overextended. Link property ownership closely to civic responsibility.This would change perceptions. Extending the idea of the duties of property owners changes our perception of someone like Branson, for example, from a mild mannered philanthropist to a marginally responsible corporate citizen. Branson may support charities and use fuel that is less damaging to the environment, but he also supported Thatcher and got the tax breaks.
Institute a Buffet - Gates Law
The Warren Buffet Pledge and the Tobin Tax, are a start. But they lack a systematic underpinning and so they lack force. When the income of an individual has exceeded a certain amount then that individual should not only be taxed to the same extent or more than an ordinary person, but that that individual be required to reinvest an increasing proportion of that income socially productive capital. For example 30% of 10 million. 50% of 50 million. 80% of 100 million. Why? Because property ownership is a civil right and a civil duty.
Without doubt property ownership raises moral questions, just as many other civil rights and duties raise moral questions.
Certain levels of ownership cannot be licensed. Capital accumulation should be licensed and paid for through sufficiently high levels of income tax and more, paid for by the active civic participation of property owners.
Use the concept of leasehold. Make all property leasehold (including shares) with an option for renewal for inheritance purposes. This way accumulation can be controlled.
I am not surprised that bankers do not understand the limits of property ownership rights or, indeed, that bankers do not understand what constitutes property owning duties: to reinvest, to pay taxes properly, to avoid risk.
So, in essence, democratically elected governments should adopt a new approach to the rights and duties of property ownership. Treat property ownership more like other citizens’ rights and duties and reformulate them in terms of licenses and leases. After all any property that is owned in Britain is only owned within the laws of a democratic state as a state given right.