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Property rights at the beach

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 12 February 2016

abeltasmanAbel Tasman beach is not only a beautiful South Island spot. It also shows us the beauty of property rights.

A crowdfunding campaign is aiming to raise $2 million to buy this slice of heaven from its current owner. If successful, the campaigners pledge to donate the beach to the Department of Conservation (DoC). This way, all New Zealanders would have access to it.

Enter Gareth Morgan, the self-made economist millionaire. Morgan offered to make up the shortfall in the crowdfunding campaign, currently about $600,000.

However, Morgan’s help would not be entirely selfless. In return, he expected to keep a part of the beach to himself. This would only be donated to DoC once the Morgan family “have finished enjoying it”. It was a case of Give-a-Little, Expect-a-Lot.

It will not come to that since the crowdfunders have already rejected Morgan’s offer. However, the whole exercise demonstrates what freedom of contract and property rights are about.

There is the current owner. It would have been perfectly within his right to keep exclusive access to the beach. Instead, he was so civic-minded to bestow parts of his property to the public. Incidentally, that is precisely what Morgan intended to continue.

It is now also within the current owner’s right to put his property for sale and sell it to the preferred bidder. This need not be the one offering the most money. If the owner puts value on public access, he might select a bidder guaranteeing it.

For those caring about free public access to beaches, they are putting their money where their mouths are. This is exactly as it should be. They are not asking the government to spend other people’s money on something they care about. Good on them.

Gareth Morgan is also right: He can offer his money under his conditions. Whether that offer will be accepted is a different matter. But as such, there is nothing morally wrong with Morgan’s bid.

Morgan is also right that both crowdfunding and his potential involvement would prevent taxpayer involvement. It would have been middle class welfare anyway. As Morgan pointed out, less affluent people are unlikely to ever visit this particular beach.

Solving public issues through private initiative and civic-mindedness, property rights and freedom of contract: New Zealanders can be proud of the current beach owner, the crowdfunders … and Gareth Morgan.

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