My recent post on candidate Rich Collins and his crabbed view of the rights of property owners sent me searching my archives for an article I remembered writing some years ago. I found it in a dusty filebox dating to the early 1990s. Entitled "Property Rights Are Also Guaranteed," it appeared on the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights in the Roanoke Times & World News (now known simply as the Roanoke Times).
The article mentions a bill then before Congress called the "Private Property Rights Act," introduced by Senator Steve Symms (R-Idaho). Senator Symms has retired, but it is interesting to note the number of cosponsors of that bill who are still in the Senate some 14 years later: Conrad Burns (R-Montana), Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota), Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), John McCain (R-Arizona), Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), and Richard Shelby (R-Alabama -- but in 1991 still a Democrat).
As printed in the Roanoke Times & World News on Sunday, December 15, 1991:
Property Rights Are Also Guaranteed
By Richard E. Sincere, Jr.
In a somewhat obscure but important decision in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court explained: “Property does not have rights. People have rights. The right to enjoy property without unlawful destruction, no less than the right to speak or the right to travel, is in truth a ‘personal’ right.” The court went on to declare that “a fundamental interdependence exists between the personal right to liberty and the personal right to property.”
Property rights – a shorthand term for the rights of people to own and use property – and human rights are indistinguishable. One cannot exist without the other. The right to a free press is impossible without the right to own ink or a photocopier or a typewriter. The right to free exercise of religion is not possible without the right to own churches and seminaries and cemeteries and Talmuds and schools.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to hold property and to make contracts using that property. The Fifth Amendment makes plain that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”
Still, property rights are under assault throughout the United States. Through taxation and regulation, state and federal governments are impeding our rights to do what we please with our property, even if we are not harming other people or their property.
Towns and cities across the country, for example, have begun to designate certain neighborhoods as “historic districts,” usually without the consent of homeowners in those neighborhoods. This designation is accompanied by hundreds of restrictions regarding what homeowners can do with their property, such as whether they can repaint their homes, put up aluminum siding, replace a roof, cut down a tree, and so forth.
In Arlington, the ugly face of historic-district designations is seen in the case of Anthony Denice, whose attempts to repair his property within the constraints of his budget have been stymied by busybody neighbors and intrusive government bureaucrats.
Denice wanted to replace the deteriorating facade on his house with weatherproof siding to protect the building and its contents. Arlington County denied Denice his right to do this, insisting on cedar shingles instead of vinyl. The county-approved improvement would cost Denice tens of thousands of dollars, not the $3,600 he budgeted for the task.
This is not a trivial issue. It affects any person who owns property, whether a residence or a business. “Historic district” designations strike at the root of individual liberty and should not be dismissed lightly. Much is at stake. In fact, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled a similar law unconstitutional because it took away the decision making capacity of homeowners in favor of a politically defined “public good,” thus taking private property for public use without just compensation.
Environmental regulations do much the same. Thousands of acres of farms, ranches, and residential areas have been declared “wetlands” that deserve government protection. The owners of the designated property are not permitted to plant crops, graze cattle, or build homes or factories on government-designated “wetlands” unless they can cut through miles of red tape.
Fortunately, a response to this assault on the basic rights of Americans is swelling in Congress. Idaho Sen. Steve Symms has introduced the Private Property Rights Act as an amendment to this year’s transportation act. A bipartisan list of 20 senators cosponsors the bill, which requires federal agencies to delay implementation of regulations until they have assessed “the potential for the taking of private property in the course of Federal regulatory activity, with the goal of minimizing such where possible.”
This bill has been endorsed by a host of organizations that represent those most severely hurt by regulation that takes away their property rights, such as farmers, small businesses, and homeowners. The president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the Symms bill will “serve as a restraint upon abuse of government power.”
We should take comfort in what one opponent of the bill, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, has said: “This amendment has major implications for the ability of all agencies of the federal government to issue regulations.” Good. We must put a brake on accelerating government power.
More than anything else, the Private Property Rights Act reminds us of the fundamental importance of private property and the way it undergirds our civilization. Any protection of property rights protects all other rights and freedoms.
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Richard E. Sincere, Jr., is chairman of the Libertarian Party of Virginia.