The Erosion of Property Rights
by Larry Salzman (October 16, 2004)
Summary: The government should be the protector of property rights, not one of their worst violators.
[www.CapitalismMagazine.com] Imagine you've been enjoying your backyard picnic table and chairs for the past 10 years when suddenly, for no apparent reason, you are served notice from a government agency that you will be fined $6,000 a day unless you remove them.
Or, imagine you would like to add a stone walkway to your garden. You begin to research the procedure and costs, only to learn that a lengthy application will be required, with multiple hearings before a state commission. You find yourself embroiled in a Kafkaesque legal battle costing tens of thousands of dollars. Finally, after years of struggle the government demands, as a condition for approving your little walkway, that you "donate" a portion of your land to the state.
Do these sound like nightmarish stories out of some totalitarian regime?
Shockingly, they are normal, everyday incidents for property owners across the nation.
In California, for example, a state agency called the California Coastal Commission routinely tramples the property rights of coastal landowners. People residing within five miles inland of California's 1,100 miles of coastline are subject to the commission's power to approve or deny improvements involving "any solid structure" on their property. This can include adding a room to a home, planting trees, adding a fence or garden walkway and, yes, in one current Orange County case, a picnic table and chairs.
Established in 1976, the California Coastal Commission's mandate is to "preserve, protect . . . and restore the resources of the coastal zone for the enjoyment of the current and succeeding generations." The Commission operates on the premise that the roughly 1.5 million acres under its jurisdiction are a "priceless natural heritage of all the people," ignoring the fact that the "priceless heritage" of California's coastline is abutted by private homes and businesses whose owners paid dearly for their property.
"All the people" have no right to demand that landowners sacrifice their property for the interests, real or alleged, of non-owners. If one owns property, one has the moral right to control it--even if that conflicts with the esthetic tastes or priorities of non-owners. One has the right to acquire property and, once acquired, to use it without interference from others, subject to only one condition: an owner must not interfere with the rights of his neighbors to do likewise. Your life and property belong to you not to others.
The California Coastal Commission and other agencies like it stand the very purpose of government on its head. The Declaration of Independence reminds us that it is only "to secure these rights," that "governments are instituted among men." A legitimate governmental agency would not violate property rights by telling an owner how he must use his property--it would do all that it could to protect the owner in his right to develop his property according to his best judgment.
Once we accept the principle that the government can deprive some individuals of their right to property, there is no basis to reject the complete usurpation of private property. If a home owner on California's coast can be ordered to stop building a shower, a shed, or a walkway, or to refrain from placing chairs and a table in his backyard, what prevents the state from gutting the right to property anywhere in America?
Indeed, all around the country there are escalating attacks on homeowners' property rights. In Lake Tahoe the smallest details of lakeshore homes, including their paint color, are regulated by a multi-state planning board. In Washington, D.C., a landlord cannot sell his own property without permission from his tenant. Near San Francisco certain homes designated as "affordable" can be sold for no more than a government-controlled price. In Portland there are wide swaths of the city in which one cannot build a single-family home on one's own land, even if it is adjacent to other suburban homes. In hundreds of U.S. cities, various laws establishing "historical districts," "landmarks," or "improvement zones" straightjacket owners who are consequently unable to remove trees, erect fences, add rooms, or even change rain gutters.
Government boards, agencies and commissions with this kind of authority should be opposed not on a case-by-case basis, but on principle. The only proper state policy with respect to private property is: hands off! In America, no governmental agency should have the power to deprive an individual of his property rights.
Copyright (c) 2004 Ayn Rand(r) Institute. All rights reserved.
Here's the question that I considered about this article:
In this commentary (1) briefly summarize the article, (2) explain how the article is related to your theme, (3) identify at least one significant issue that the author of the article raises for your theme group, and (4) explain your perspective on the issue and whether or not the article altered or challenged that perspective. If it did, how did it?
Do you like the color blue? That has been the question for hundreds of years, but now there is a new question: Does the government like the color blue? At least that is the question that you have to ask when painting your house in many parts of America. Here is another question: Why should the government have a say in what color your house is? The answer coming from the halls of power in many states is "because it can." This should not be expectable to any American. After all, this is your property not the government's property. The government should require good reason to interfere with your property rights, but all too often, the government is forcing individuals to conform to what a bureaucracy finds "acceptable."
The article that I have attached is mainly a list of outrageous circumstances in which the government has undermined individual's property rights for no good reason or no reason at all. For example, it is obvious that you should be able to sell you home or property for whatever price someone is willing to pay for your property, but this is not the case in parts of San Francisco where the government sets the price for which you can sell your home. In another and more far reaching case, anyone within five miles of the California coast is subjected to the California Coastal Commission, which means that an individual who lives in this area can make no changes to any "solid structure" on there property without first getting permission from this government bureaucracy.
Aside form protecting your liberty and your life, the government has no more important task then protecting your right to own your property and to use it in anyway that does not interfere with the rights of others. Imagine if the government violated your other rights with the some because-it-can attitude in which it violates your property rights. Government officials could simply imprison you or better yet kill you because they do not like what you say, how you look, or even how you dress. Obviously, this would outrage anyone, but you should be equally outraged when you must spend years to do the simplest of construction on your property. This example goes to the heart of the theme of government regulation or in this case overregulation.
My opinion on this matter is clear. The government has only two reasons to interfere with your property rights. First, if you are using your property in a way that interferes with some other individual's rights to life, liberty, or to use their property, the government has the right to stop you. Second, if the government has need of your property for use in accordance with the public good, the government can take your property, but must compensate you at the fair market value of the property. Outside these two cases, it is "hands off," as the author of the article puts it.
Americans protect there rights of life and liberty fanatically. There are some that would not see even the most sadistic criminals punished by death. There are those that today fight for the freedom of suspected terrorists, not because they agree with them, but because to do otherwise would allow the government to restrict someone's liberty without showing just cause. We must protect our property rights with this same zeal. We must force the government to have just cause whenever they seek to violate our rights.