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Property rights - the case for freedom


Fri, Apr 22nd, 2005
Posted in Commentary

In the latter 1700’s our nation was formed on a foundation of personal freedom. In particular, private property rights were established. That choice resulted in the richest, most powerful political entity ever to exist on planet Earth.

In the early part of the 20th century other nations experienced political upheaval and wound up choosing to severely limit personal freedoms. Property and the decisions of how to use it were vested in agencies of the state. Central control was their choice. Results included economic failure, destruction of the human spirit and national collapse within one human lifespan.

We all breathed a sigh of relief when Communism collapsed. A huge threat to our way of life had been diminished. But we must remember history’s lessons. Most great civilizations collapse from within. In my mind, only our judicial system which has chosen to ignore its vow to protect the Constitution, is a greater threat to our way of life than the continuing trend toward public control of private property.

Everyone wants clean air, pure water, economic opportunity, security and a reasonably comfortable and stress-free lifestyle. The goals of all of us are very similar. Where we differ is in how to achieve these goals. Actually the question is quite similar to, “How should we enhance national revenues?” The apparent answer is, “Raise tax rates.” There is no doubt that this will raise revenues for a year or two but then the adjustments that businesses and people naturally make to this loss of funds (their freedom in a real sense) begins to be felt. Revenues decline as jobs are curtailed, businesses expand elsewhere or relocate entirely and the net long-term result is a loss of revenue for the governing body and a loss of economic activity for the area involved.

If a tax cut is made, tax revenues will obviously decline for a period but now, especially if other encouragements are present, the adjustments made by businesses and individuals are toward expansion of economic activity. Revenues rebound as a result of higher gross profits and the long term outcome is sustained higher revenues.

Personal freedom elicits increased economic activity which is the key to attaining the aforementioned “goals.” When China gave up on pure Communism in the economic realm, one of the first steps they took was to provide and guarantee private property rights. The result has been a mind boggling rate of economic expansion.

Please understand that regardless of your state or station in life we are all dependent upon the people who actually produce the food, the goods and the services which sustain our standard of living. These folks are small businesses and, in most cases, just don’t have the time or emotional energy to be involved in all of the planning and zoning meetings which are constantly nibbling away at private property rights. The folks most affected are the least represented. They are members of the community and are working toward the same set of common goals we have mentioned. They have detailed knowledge of their situation and are undoubtedly working toward these goals in a prudent and coherent manner. Now along comes the planning commission and decides that some “improvements” need to be made. Voila! The operation was a success but the patient has unfortunately died. History and common sense show us that central planning is not the answer in the area of private property decision-making. Indeed, it is like trying to fix a watch with a bulldozer. The tool has more than sufficient force but lacks the dexterity and finesse to address the detailed problems. The positive effects elicited by zoning and other central control mechanisms tend to be like smearing makeup on a zit. It might look better for a while but eventually things have to come to a head. Economic activity slows and soon there is no money to buy “makeup”. Things wind up worse instead of better.

I’m not saying that anyone should have “carte blanche” to do anything they want. The rule that “My rights end where your nose begins”, is very valid. But we as a society need to give our producers room to do their thing. We need to recognize that if we want to eat a hamburger, we may have to smell some manure. If we want oak cabinets, a tree will need to be cut down. If we want to use energy, there will be some extraction and processing impacts. Etc. Etc. Let’s get real!

As things stand now, the farmers don’t want new houses in the open places. The hunters, loggers, and hikers don’t want new houses in the wooded areas. The hard core environmentalists seem to think that we should all just hover and never touch down. These all seem to be valid views but there is definitely no way to accommodate them all. Wouldn’t the prudent thing be to allow the person paying taxes on the property make the decisions on it’s use? “But we need a plan!” you say? Zoning is not the answer. It is like automotive antifreeze. It looks good, it smells good, it tastes good. But it is sickening if ingested and enough of it will kill you. Freedom empowers. Regulation enslaves. The ultimate costs of limiting freedom far outweigh the temporary benefits.

There are a lot of people who are reading this who agree with my ideas but who have become discouraged of ever heading the monster off. I would like to provide some hope for you. Since 1987 there have been a number of supreme court decisions which have reaffirmed the position of private property rights. Also, a major property rights initiative has been passed in (of all places) Oregon. My feeling is that zoning is like a brontosaurus whose body is dying but the message hasn’t gotten down that long neck to the tiny brain yet.

Another consideration is to remind you that the freedoms which we enjoy were purchased and preserved at great cost by our forefathers. Will this generation disregard that sacrifice and dishonor their memory by relinquishing them? When I see a picture of an American citizen burning our flag, my gut reaction is that it would be “good” if he were punished. Then reason kicks in and I realize that to accomplish this “good” thing, that which is “precious”, his right of free expression, must be abandoned. Any man who trades that which is “precious” for that which is merely “good” strikes a poor bargain.

As a Christian, I understand that the freedoms we enjoy as Americans were provided by God. My feeling is that if I fight the erosion of those freedoms, I support His wise provision. God forbid that I should ever be involved in reducing these gifts.

A very well researched book on this topic is “Property and Freedom-The Constitution, The Courts, and Land-Use Regulation” by Prof. Bernard H. Siegan.

Please educate yourself and be active in this area. The opportunities available for your children and grandchildren and, indeed, the future of our nation hang in the balance.

Kent Erding lives in the village of Fillmore.

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