October 8, 2013

Shutdown shows why property rights matter

By Christina M. Martin Attorney

Under the auspices of the government “shutdown,” federal employees are barring many homeowners and entrepreneurs from their homes and businesses. Why? The homes and businesses are located on federal land. Thus the government claims a right to block their access since it can’t afford to provide services during a shutdown (except the service of creating the blockages in the first place). Since prior government shutdowns have not involved these kinds of actions, many have pointed out that these actions are really political theater, dubbed “Washington Monument Syndrome.”

One of the most sympathetic stories involves an elderly couple Joyce and Ralph Spencer, who live in what is officially a vacation home at Lake Mead, a federal park. The Spencers, like many people across the country, rent the property from the federal government. The National Park Service called them and told them that from here on, they would be trespassing if they tried to use their home.

Setting aside the question of whether the government’s actions are legal or consistent with these renters’ rights, this is a good reminder of why property rights matter in the first place. As John Adams said, property must be sacred or liberty cannot exist. Property is a form of power that enables individuals to be independent and to exercise their other rights. Crudely speaking, money allows a person to buy platforms for speech and religion and to defend themselves against official retaliation. The power of these kinds of platforms can be seen every day. One public example occurred in 2012 when Google and several other powerful companies used their property to educate the public about possible effects of anti-piracy legislation, commonly known as “SOPA” and “PIPA.” Without the right to its property—its website and its money—Google’s right to speech would have been far less effective. And if the government could have destroyed Google’s website in retaliation, the company would probably never have risked speaking out in the first place.

When the government can take property or severely limit its use, then it can control exercise of other rights. It is no coincidence that governments (e.g., North Korea, the Soviet Union) that destroy private property rights inevitably destroy rights to speech, religion, and life itself.  Private property rights guarantee our right to dissent, to disagree, to be different.

In the Spencers’ case, the right to speech, for example may not be implicated, but the Obama Administration’s willingness to use the IRS to investigate and harass Tea Party groups raises a similar kind of “chilling effect,” and it is not unusual for business owners and land developers to stifle their objections to government policies out of fear that they could be denied permits or have their property taken if they express their opposition. Imagine if we all had government as a landlord.  There can be little doubt that our other freedoms would not last long.

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