It is inevitable that changes in government policy will result in both winners and losers, just as changes in the non-governmental actions will. One of the starting points I argue in my Honours class in welfare economics is that, in terms of practical policy (as distinct from the conceptual benchmark of a mythical social planner) the world is, always has been, and always will be Pareto efficient, and so a rule that policy changes cannot impose costs on anyone is tantamount to a rule that policy changes can never occur. But I think we can suggest some guidelines for when government-imposed costs are justified. The key issues are whether the policy is imposing costs on individuals or corporate bodies, whether the policy is a direct appropriation of property or one the imposed costs are indirect, and whether the policy is designed to improve efficiency or serve some social objective. Let’s take each in turn.
- Is the cost imposed directly on individuals or on corporations? Takings from individuals require a higher threshold of benefit than takings from corporations. I don’t here mean to that corporations are somehow separate from the individuals who own them, or that their owners have lesser rights than other citizens; this is simply recognising the fact that company owners have the opportunity to diversify risk in their shareholdings, and hence to diversify the implications of government policy changes. A policy that forced lower electricity prices might wipe value from electricity companies, but add value to electricity buying companies as well as final consumers. If such a policy were efficiency increasing, there is no reason for it to impose significant costs on any diversified shareholder.
- Is the policy one that appropriates resources directly or one that changes the value of current assets? A direct takings, such as when the government uses compulsory purchase to acquire land for a highway, is a more serious use of government power than one that imposes costs indirectly through revaluations of assets, simply because a direct takings has the potential to impose far greater costs to an individual if their personal valuation of the asset is greatly in excess of its market value.
- Is the policy one that is designed to improve efficiency or to bring about social redistribution? In my view, the hurdle has to set very high before one can justify a direct or indirect takings to fund redistribution. This is not to say that social redistribution is not warranted, but rather the moral case for redistribution should be grounded in a transparent and honest policy that seeks to share the burden broadly rather than hiding the costs. Financing redistribution through indirect takings smacks too much of offering the other kid’s bat for my taste.