Home Regular Contributors John Liston Is the Government Creating or Removing Barriers?

Is the Government Creating or Removing Barriers?

John Liston.

Adam Smith called it “the system of natural liberty.” James Madison referred to it as “the benign influence of a responsible government.” Others have called it the free enterprise system. By whatever name it is called, the economic system envisioned by our forefathers and encouraged by the charter of rights and freedoms allow individual enterprise to flourish and triggered the greatest explosion of economic progress in all of history.


The economic role of government was simply to secure rights and encourage commerce.

  • assure that the ground rules were fair (a fixed standard of weights and measures)
  • encourage initiative and inventiveness (copyright and patent protection laws)
  • provide a system of sound currency with an established value (gold and silver coin)
  • enforce free trade (free from interfering special interests)
  • protect individuals from the harmful acts of others

Other characteristics of free enterprise beyond limited government include economic freedom to buy what we want, competition, equal opportunity for all, social responsibility to the greater good, profit motive as a force for good and property rights; the right town land, buildings, or other goods to use and dispose of as we choose.

Enter our partners in Ottawa. It would serve as a daily reminder that the job of the politician is to clear barriers out of the way of citizens and businesses, not erect more obstacles. We’ve been looking at the federal election platforms, and this policy in the Liberal platform popped out at us: “Work with municipalities to identify vacant or underused property that should be converted to housing on the principle of use it or lose it.” Say what?

There is another place where “use it or lose it” is mentioned in both main party platforms. The federal government holds an auction for the rights to develop broadband spectrum, if you don’t use them within a reasonable period, they want to be able to take them back and grant them to someone else. We take the same use it or lose it approach to mineral leases. When the government owns something, they should expect it to be developed with a partner or find someone else to develop it. We can accept that.

But there is an idea setting in that speculators are squatting on prime land and government needs to do something about it. There are some targeted ways to deal with this – a vacant property tax penalizes owners for keeping a property unused. CPC leader Erin O’Toole has proposed to ban foreign investors not living in Canada from buying homes for two years to try to cool the speculation in Vancouver and Toronto.

But it’s another matter altogether to start expropriating private property because government thinks they can find a better use.

Maybe the “use it or lose it” principle should apply to government-owned land.

The Blatchford land in Edmonton was once the site of the city centre airport. Ten years after closure, little progress has been made developing it out. Before government start eyeing private property, maybe they should make sure all vacant government land is serving a useful purpose.

If you want to know the biggest barrier to development in our cities, province, and country, it’s the ridiculous wait times and delays to get permits processed, and the unreasonable demands that often get placed as a condition of approval.

Why not focus on that? Leading with a policy of seizing private property would not be a great way to start.