The Rule of Law and Social Cohesion

Why different rules for different people doesn’t work: reflections on the rule of law in America, Australia and the United Kingdom.

When explaining western prosperity the ‘rule of law’ is generally bundled together with other unique attributes of western civilisation and usually implies one concept – property rights. Historian Niall Ferguson, for example, has put forward six “killer apps” of western civilisation “that set the west apart from the rest”: competition; the scientific revolution; modern medicine; the consumer society; the work ethic; and property rights.[1] Amid these important attributes it is worth reflecting on the contribution of private property rights.

During an interview in 2002, the late Milton Friedman rhetorically asked: “What does it mean to privatize if you do not have security of property, if you can’t use your property as you want to?”[2] Indeed, it is difficult to envisage the United States without its early and firm responses to questions like these. From champion nineteenth century industrialists like John D. Rockefeller through to the property seeking individual, one could only prosper if they were guaranteed a firm degree of legal protection for what they owned.

This concept of protection for one’s property had its roots in Britain where, by the seventeenth century, private property had come to be viewed as “the holiest of holies”.[3] Such thirst transposed firmly onto Colonial America, illustrated by the hugely popular land grants that were used to establish settlements, mission and farms. Important to recall is that land was not viewed as simply open space – it was vigorously pursued as a productive asset.

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