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Property Rights: A Blessing for Maori New Zealand
by Peter Cresswell

The intellectually lazy can often be heard opining (amongst other nonsense) that before Europeans arrived all of New Zealand was owned by the Maori who inhabited some parts of the country. This is the 'thinking' that somehow concludes that some four hundred tribesmen somehow 'owned' the entire South Island! This is the sort of thinking that I can only conclude is utter tosh.

It simply cannot be said that 'the Maori people' ever 'owned' New Zealand in any meaningful sense of the word. Before Europeans arrived, Maori at best only owned what they owned; they only owned what they used, inhabited and in the words of John Locke "mixed their labour with." On that basis there are large tracts of the country that to this day have never been owned by Maori.

However, let me make my argument here even more contentious: I am going to argue that Maori actually owned nothing before Europeans arrived. Not New Zealand, not the lands on which they lived or hunted, not even the things with which they mixed their labour. Let me tell you why.

Let me begin my explanation by examining Maori culture - and I stress that I am speaking of Maori culture here, NOT every Maori. Every culture is not equal, some, frankly, are better than others. How do we judge one culture against another? How does Maori culture rate? Well, as Thomas Sowell once pointed out: "Cultures are not museum pieces. They are the working machinery of everyday life. Unlike objects of aesthetic contemplation, working machinery is judged by how well it works, compared to the alternatives."

How then did pre-European culture work for those living within it? For individual Maori, the answer is "bloody poorly."

When Europeans began to arrive on New Zealand's shores Taranaki was empty, Auckland was largely deserted, and Maori living elsewhere were part of a culture that enthusiastically embraced tribalism, warfare, and slavery. The former engendered the latter.

And it was a dying culture - dying because, to use today's jargon word, it was unsustainable. When Europeans arrived, the Maori population had plateaued at 115,0001 and Maori were living a subsistence lifestyle with a limited diet, limited food resources, and constant battling over the few remaining resources. "By 600 years [before present] many animals had been driven to extinction or close to it, and very large areas of the country, even in remote inland South Island valleys, were being burnt regularly."2

The country's natural resources had almost been stripped bare by slash and burn agriculture. They had been stripped bare because there was no incentive for care in maintaining those resources; the Tragedy of the Commons was in operation, and starvation and constant fighting over scarce means of survival was the result. "The characteristic pattern of warfare and fortification in New Zealand in the late prehistoric is intimately linked with an overshoot of population with regard to wild food resources - and hence conflict."3 In other words, they were hungry and fought over the few wild foods left, and they couldn't grow new food because they were always fighting. Without security, domestic cultivation was damned difficult, and this was a culture bereft of security.

So why, when there was so much pressure on resources, were Taranaki and Auckland empty? One very good reason: It was too damned dangerous to live there.

Taranaki was too dangerous, because of constant utu wars with Waikato Maoris. As historian Keith Sinclair explains: "Taranaki was almost unpopulated because in the [eighteen] twenties, after many of the local Maoris had migrated to Otaki and Cook's Strait, the Waikato tribes had killed or enslaved all the rest."4

Those Taranaki Maoris who had fled - and who had thereby avoided being been killed, eaten or enslaved - only began to arrive back in Taranaki once it was safe to do so. What made it safe was the rule of law - the protection of individual rights that British law once did so well. The rule of law was a great gift to Taranaki Maoris; it quite literally saved their lives. One would like to think that those Taranaki Maoris alive today who are unenslaved, uneaten and flourishing under the remnants of that rule of law would sometimes give thanks to its inception.

Ironically, Te Rauparaha having escaped the Taranaki slaughter himself went on an eighteen-year rampage that only concluded with his signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 14 May 1840. Says historian Steven Oliver: "He believed that the treaty would guarantee him and his allies the possession of territories gained by conquest over the previous 18 years."5

What about Auckland? Auckland was too dangerous, because it was so damned attractive. These days, properties on Mount Eden are some of the most expensive in the country - expensive because so desirable. When you have secure property rights, the value of a property is a reflection of its desirability, of how many want to live in such place, and how much they are prepared to pay to live there. In those pre-European days, the Mount Eden slopes were equally as desirable, however because they were so desirable they were empty. Imagine! Empty empty because they were desirable! Why? Because of the absence of property rights. Without secure property rights it just wasn't safe to be there!

Consequently, "when Europeans came to [Auckland], they saw only a wilderness of scrub, for all the isthmus had been gardens and was in various stages of regeneration."6 Kiwi Tamaki's Waiohua tribe had spent the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries living and 'slash-and-burn gardening' around Mt Eden (Maungawhau) and One Tree Hill (Maungakiekie). These hills had everything a seventeenth-century estate agent could dream of - they offered great defensive positions, fantastic northern slopes for kumara pits, and a delightful location between two sparkling harbours. But in a culture when ownership is held by conquest rather than by right, having everything means you very soon have nothing - because someone else wants it, and who gets to keeps it is he who has the biggest friends.

At that time, the Auckland isthmus was a war zone that Thomas Hobbes would have recognised. In Auckland's war of all against all, Waiohua, Kawerau, Ngati Maru, Ngati Huarere, and Ngati Whatua fought, re-fought, and fought again across this narrow strip of land hung between two sparkling waters. Ngati Paoa from Thames eventually took Mt Eden and many of Auckland's other volcanic cones from Kiwi Tamaki, only to be ejected themselves about 1780 by Ngati Whatua.

But the wars were not yet over. In 1818, Ngapuhi swept down from Northland with their guns, and over the next few years slaughtered and enslaved all who remained. Mt Eden and One Tree Hill remained empty. In 1835, Ngati Whatua crept timidly back to Okahu Bay, and Greenhithe: "During the Ngapuhi wars Tamaki-makau-rau was almost deserted, and remained so until 1835 when Ngati Whatua returned ... In March 1840 three Ngati Whatua chiefs met Governor Hobson and signed the Treaty of Waitangi ... These men saw the Pakeha as a possible insurance against further raids."7

Te Rauparaha and the Ngati Whatua chiefs were not stupid. Te Rauparaha wanted to secure the land he had taken by conquest. Ngati Whatua wanted to secure land that they had only recently taken by conquest and then been thrown off. It seems clear that their concept of 'ownership' was based on conquest.

So, did Maori actually own land then, in the full meaning of the term 'own'? The Cassell's Dictionary defines own to mean "to have as property by right." Note that phrase "by right." Contrast that with the word taonga, often translated as "treasured possessions or cultural items, anything precious." The Treaty of Waitangi guarantees to Maoris "full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests and Fisheries and other properties... ," translating properties as taonga. But is that strictly true?

Examining the etymology of the word taonga throws light on how Maori culture viewed property: tao means 'a lance, or spear'; nga is simply the definite article. That the word taonga has come to mean 'treasure' suggests that early on the word came to signify either a precious spear - which in a warlike culture would be precious indeed, and would likely be one of few possessions - or, eventually would mean 'things that you could take and hold by use of the spear.' In other words: loot, booty or plunder - things you take by conquest. In other words, things you 'own' until someone bigger than you takes them from you. This is 'ownership' not by right, but by force. In fact, it is not ownership at all.

Maori culture did not recognise the concept of 'right,' and had no concept of ownership beyond the playground notion of grabbing what you can when you can. (There is no shame in this: the concept of rights was still in its infancy, having been discovered and explored by the Enlightenment culture of the West only very recently. The discovery was instrumental in helping Europeans to shake off their own savage past.) But the fact remains that when conquest is the only basis of a claim to ownership there is no right, there is only force. And there is no security. Taranaki Maori and the Ngati Whatua chiefs demonstrated they at least understood that when they began to realise that Pakeha law might protect them better then they might do so themselves with their spears. But whether they ever 'owned' the land by right to which they now lay claim is severely problematic. It is beyond doubt however that they could not fully utilise even the land they did lay claim to until protected by law, however imperfect that protection might have been.

Ownership is a crucial need of human life only ghosts can survive without material sustenance - and the concept of property rights was a crucial step in advancing human civilisation. It was a gift from the Enlightenment culture. Man is not born with the material needs to ensure his survival, he must instead produce for himself what he needs in order to survive and prosper. Further, he must be able to keep what he has produced and the means by which he has produced it which means he requires the security of ownership, of right.

In his book describing the history of property rights, Tom Bethell enumerates what he calls the "four great blessings that cannot be easily realised in a society that lacks the secure, decentralised private ownership of goods. These are: liberty, justice, peace, and prosperity."8 These were amongst the blessings that Europeans brought to New Zealand as part of their Enlightenment culture.

Consider the histories of Mt Eden and One Tree Hill. These two volcanic cones offer a compelling contrast between how land is used with property rights, and how it is used without. With property rights, land is used to its maximum potential; the most valuable land is highly prized - and highly priced. However, when land is owned not by right but by conquest, land use becomes quite unrelated to its value - indeed, the most valuable land is often unused because its very desirability leads to the potential danger of re-conquest, and the risk of being killed, eaten and enslaved yourself.

In the absence of any conception of property rights, Maori culture had stripped bare the environmental resources that sustained their survival, and left valuable land bare precisely because it was valuable. It was a culture on its knees. It was the tragedy of the commons; it was starvation, slavery and warfare; it was a culture whose machinery was killing those trapped within. What saved them were the "rights and privileges of British citizens" guaranteed to them by Article Three of the Treaty. Chief among these rights and privileges at least in 1840, if no longer - were property rights, bringing blessings previously unknown to this warrior culture.

Ayn Rand observed: "The right to life is the source of all rights - and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own efforts, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave."9

The absence of secure property rights in Maori New Zealand shows us the literal truth of her observation.


[1] The Evolution of the Polynesian Chieftains, Kirch, P.V., 1984.
[2] "An Ecological Approach to the Polynesian Settlement of New Zealand," McGlone, M.S., Anderson, A.J., and Holdaway, R.N., in The Origins of the First New Zealanders, ed. Sutton, D.G., Auckland University Press, 1994.
[3] ibid.
[4] A History of New Zealand, Keith Sinclair, Pelican, 4th revised edition, 1991.
[5] Te Rauparaha Biography, Steven Oliver, NewZealandHistory.net.nz, 1998.
[6] Maori Auckland, David Simmons, Bush Press, 1987.
[7] ibid.
[8] The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, Tom Bethell, St. Martin's Press, 1998.
[9] Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Ayn Rand, Signet, 1966.

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