Property Rights Under Assault

Two centuries ago, British Prime Minister William Pitt said that the poorest man in the country was so secure in his little cottage that the King of England and his men “dare not cross the threshold” without his permission. That is what property rights are all about — keeping the government off the backs of the people.

Beginning last September 19th, however, laws went into effect giving the British public the right to walk on certain privately owned land. These are large estates that critics on the left have called “private kingdoms,” which are to be private no more.

Envy and resentment of the rich have always been potent political weapons for those seeking to expand government power.

Often the power first applied to the rich gradually comes down the income scale to apply to people who are far from rich, just as the income tax has done. But it may be a while before ordinary Britons find that their own little cottage gardens can be trampled on by strangers.

In Norway and Sweden, people are not only allowed to walk on other people’s privately owned land but also to go riding and skiing there and to pick fruit. Europe has long been politically further to the left than the United States, so it provides a sneak preview of where our own liberals are headed.

In the more left-leaning parts of California, for example, public access to privately owned land is being pushed under a variety of labels. A builder in San Mateo, California, wanted to wall off a small development for the elderly, in the interest of security, but was told by the Planning Commission that he must allow “street presence” rather than block out the public, if he expects to get their approval to build.

Some private homeowners on the Monterey peninsula have discovered that they are not quite as private as they would like to be because local authorities there have created an easement which allows the public to have access to a road across their property.

Officials who violate homeowners’ property rights may have some pretty words that are in vogue in their circles but they pay no price if strangers burglarize or vandalize homes to which they have been given free access, or even murder the homeowners.

Paying a price is what decision-making through a market is all about. But getting something for nothing is increasingly what politics is all about. Why anyone would expect better decisions to be made by third parties who pay no price for being wrong is one of the mysteries of our time.

All across this country, planning commissions, zoning boards, and environmental agencies take more and more decisions out of the hands of the people, who are told in increasing detail what they can and cannot do on their own property.

People who live where there are strong winds and tall trees with shallow roots on their property know that this is a formula for falling trees to create costly damage or even death. But these homeowners have in some places found that they cannot cut down those trees because that would go against environmental fetishes.

Rivers and streams may need to be dredged, in order to prevent flooding, but the danger of a flooded home or a drowned child is not a price that has to be paid by bureaucrats at an environmental agency that is preoccupied with keeping everything “natural.”

The Constitution of the United States protected property rights for the same reason that it protected other rights — a fear, based on the history of the human race, that those with power would abuse it if you let them. But liberal judges have increasingly “interpreted” the Constitution’s property rights out of existence when those rights have gotten in the way of government officials promoting liberal agendas.

Although much of this arbitrary power is wielded by unelected officials on zoning boards, planning commissions, and the like, the laws that create these boards and commissions are passed by elected officials whom we can vote out of office. But that requires that we stop letting ourselves be duped by pretty phrases like “open space” or “smart growth.”

There will never be a lack of pretty phrases, if that is all it takes to get us to give up our rights and submit to those who will feel fulfilled in their own lives only when they are controlling our lives.