Commentary

July 4th Warning: Lose Property Rights, Lose America

From the U.K. comes a ominous Fourth of July warning from Perry de Havilland…the evisceration of property rights (via eminent domain and asset forfeiture laws) poses an emormous threat to the American experiment:

Today is the 4th of July, when Americans celebrate their independence and much talk of freedom and constitutions occurs. This day is in many ways an orgy of self-congratulation, much of which is entirely justified (I make no secret of my pro-Americanism Atlanticism). But perhaps, just perhaps, the ‘shot heard around the country’ that was delivered by the Supreme Court of the United States with the Kelo verdict will snap a great number of Americans out of their understandable but entirely misplaced complacency regarding the benevolence of their own nation-state. Not only does Eminent Domain now pose a threat to anyone whose property happens to catch the eye of a well connected property developer, the USA also has outrageous ‘asset forfeiture’ laws that allow suspects to have their property taken by the state, reversing the burden of proof and making the accused (but un-convicted and usually un-tried) person prove their property is not the proceeds of some crime in order to have the property returned (they cannot prevent it from being taken in the first place). So much for ‘due process’. Americans would do well to remember that it was the use of British sedition laws to seize private property from political activists was a major cause of disaffection in the colonies in the lead up to the Revolution in 1776. Moreover those sedition laws were far less capricious and more respectful of due process than modern ‘asset forfeiture’ laws (colonial era sedition laws at least required you to actually be convicted). The fight against Al Qaeda and any who ally with them must go on but the greatest threat to liberty (and in the long run that inevitably means life) facing the people in the United States comes not from without but from within. Until the entire scope of what government can do is radically cut back, Kelo is pointing the way to a grim future. I hope that the Supreme Court’s destruction of the 5th Amendment by allowing the state to take private property for the private use of property developers, will be reversed long before it requires the active use of the 2nd Amendment to make private property secure against those who would rather use political power rather than markets to enrich themselves. Happy birthday America.

None of this is news to those of us that recognize the fundamental importance of private property rights to liberty and the functioning of a capitalist economy. But as a nation, we would do well to put our justifiable outrage over the Kelo decision in its proper historical and philosophical context. It’s not just that our homes and livelihoods are at risk; what’s even worse is that we have allowed our government to slowly erode the most critical pillar of the American economy and way of life. If that weakened pillar crumbles under pressure, so goes the nation. One more thought…make no mistake, eminent domain and asset forfeiture are indeed pernicious influences, but the greater threat comes from the expanding regulatory state. Masked in the guise of noble intentions, a pletora of Federal, state, and local land use and environmental regulations have spread their tentacles across vast portions of the country, trampling citizens’ property rights and livelihoods in their slow creep. That’s not to say that all regulations are undesirable or malicious; some have value. The real threat lies in the accumulated weight of these regulations over time and the waning ability of our system of property rights to support (and overcome) them.

Leonard Gilroy is vice president of government reform at Reason Foundation and senior managing director of Reason's Pension Integrity Project.