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Walter E. Williams: Property must be sacred or liberty cannot exist

SHARE Walter E. Williams: Property must be sacred or liberty cannot exist

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Kelo v. New London decision, ruled that the private property of one American could be taken and given to another American as long as it served a public purpose. The public purpose in that case was greater tax revenues for the fiscally strapped city of New London. The city figured that if it used its powers of eminent domain to force private homeowners out and then transferred their property to developers to build commercial property, there would be greater tax revenues.

Many Americans were angered by this violation of both the letter and spirit of the Fifth Amendment, which in part reads, "... nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." Public purpose is not the same as public use. Public use means property can be taken, with just compensation, to build a road, a highway, a fort or some other public project.

My response to the Kelo decision was, "See, I told you so." For decades, Americans have been willing to allow politicians to trample over private property rights, so why should we be surprised when politicians become more emboldened?

Here's a brief history. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fined one landowner $300,000 for "destroying" wetlands because he cleared a backed-up drainage ditch on his property. The Fish & Wildlife Service told one landowner he couldn't use 1,000 acres of his property so the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker could have a place to dwell. Another owner was prevented from clearing dry brush near his home to make a firebreak because it would disturb the Stephens kangaroo rat. Building a deck on his house brought one owner a $30,000 fine for casting a shadow on wetlands.

Smoking bans are another violation of private property rights supported by most Americans. If a person owns a restaurant, it is his right to decide whether or not he will permit smoking. If a restaurant owner wishes to permit smoking, he might put up a "Smoking Permitted" sign and let customers decide whether they wish to enter. Similarly, if an owner didn't permit smoking, he might put up a "No Smoking" sign and let customers decide.

I'm guessing that a restaurant owner who didn't permit smoking would see it as a violation of his property rights if a coalition used the political arena to create legislation forcing him to permit smoking. It is no less of a property rights violation the other way around.

Tyranny breeds tyranny. Chicago's City Council recently enacted a ban on foie gras — a French delicacy made of duck and goose liver. The ostensible justification given for the ban is that foie gras represents cruelty to animals because it involves force-feeding ducks and geese in order to fatten up their livers. Mayor Richard M. Daley has mocked the ban as the "silliest law" passed by the council. Pressured by animal rights activists, a Philadelphia councilman, following his Chicago brethren, has recently introduced legislation that would ban foie gras in Philadelphia restaurants. These bans are just more of the same — attacks on private property rights.

Animal rights wackos won't be satisfied with banning foie gras. Why not ban lobsters for the same reason as the ban on foie gras? After all, putting a live lobster in boiling water can be interpreted as cruelty to animals. What about banning beef? Can't it be interpreted as cruel to leave a calf parentless by slaughtering his mother and father? John Adams warned, "The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. Property must be sacred or liberty cannot exist."

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.