|Blog Action Day 2013|
In a somewhat obscure but important decision in 1972 (Lynch v. Household Finance Corporation), 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, a computer or a blog's domain name. 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." The widespread negative reaction to the Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo decision -- and efforts to fix and overturn it legislatively -- demonstrates how deeply felt this right remains among Americans despite the encroachments of government. (See, for instance, "Richard Epstein notes how Kelo sparked more scrutiny of eminent domain.")
Even setting aside Kelo and eminent domain takings, 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, 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.
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.
Thinking about property rights as human rights 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.