Property Rights Essential if Americans are to Remain Free
By Scott Rohter, March 2015 Updated October 2018
Property rights are one of the most important freedoms we enjoy as Americans. Enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the first major piece of legislation that Congress passed back in 1789, property rights are just as important today as they were back then. Without respect for private property freedom doesn’t exist. It wouldn’t have any meaning, and the protection of the right to own property is essential if we are to remain free.
The right to own property is so important that the Bill of Rights states in the Fifth Amendment that “Private property shall not be taken (not even) for a public purpose… without just compensation”, and that doesn’t mean just barely. While it is necessary sometimes for government to take private property to promote the general welfare or for the common good, it does not mean that the government can just take someone’s private property for any reason whatsoever and give it to someone else who promises to build a hotel on it or an affordable housing project. It does not mean that it can simply take an old dilapidated home away from someone just so that a developer can build a beautiful new office complex that would generate more tax revenue for your local government. Generating taxes is not what the Constitution means by promoting the general welfare, not by any wild stretch of a Democrat’s evil imagination.
The protection of private property rights is much more important than beefing up your local county’s tax roles or securing an adequate supply of land for urban development. It is more important than providing a buffer zone around endangered rivers and streams for the purpose of protecting water or wildlife habitat. It is more important than creating Agenda 21 compliant, progressive urban communities with designated bus lanes for ecofriendly buses to transport people back and forth around town. If the people of your town don’t want a designated bus lane to run through their private property then the Mayor and the City Council should respect that decision and their property rights, but that isn’t the way it is in Eugene, Oregon.
The City of Eugene and many public officials in Lane County have always been disrespectful of private property rights. In 1995 the City of Eugene slapped a five thousand dollar tax lien on every tax lot in the River Road and Santa Clara neighborhoods north west of town, and ordered all property owners to hook up to the Eugene Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plant. That was the year that city officials confiscated the home of Jack and Betty Neely at 1600 Horn Lane because they challenged the legitimacy of the City’s actions and they refused to pay for a sewer hookup they did not want.
The City made an example out of the Neely’s when they foreclosed on their home and sold it for the exact amount of the sewer lien plus interest. Jack and Betty Neely were evicted and a month later after an exhausting five year legal battle Jack Neely died of a heart attack. At least that is what the coroner’s report said. Jack was homeless at age 76 and he actually died of a broken heart precipitated by stress. The City of Eugene was responsible for his death.
The same lack of respect for private property rights led the City of Eugene and the Lane County Board of Commissioners in 2008 to try to confiscate 200 feet of private property from every landowner in Lane County with a creek on their property. This was the very unpopular 200 Foot Overlay Map that the County tried to foist on rural property owners. That motion was tabled after a groundswell of opposition led to a tumultuous Board Meeting after which there was an election and the County Board of Commissioners went from a majority of liberals on it to a majority of conservatives.
After an election earlier this year the Lane County Board of Commisioners is inching its way back to a liberal majority again with the election of Joe Bierney and now with the runoff between Gary Williams and Heather Buch it is quite possible that the Board will go back to a 3 to 2 liberal majority again. That would be disastrous for private property rights in Lane County. If Heather Buch wins you can count on the 200 foot Overlay Map being brought back and you can kiss your property rights goodbye.
The concept of private property rights was actually so important to America’s early settlers that the Founding Fathers avoided making any reference to it at all in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution until after the nation was founded. They deftly avoided this subject until after the Constitution was ratified by Southern States.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident… that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights… that among these are Life,Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The phrase “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” which is found in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence was carefully constructed so as to avoid mentioning the more popular phrase of the day : “Life, Liberty, and Property.” It may seem like a contradiction at first that property rights aren’t even mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, but the reason for this is very simple.
In 1789 when the Constitution was ratified the concept of property rights was understood by voters in southern States to include the ownership of people used in the manufacture of cheap cotton. It was through the cultivation and sale of cheap cotton to textile manufacturers in England that the first fortunes in America were made off the backs of slaves. This was how the United States would begin to rise to become a world power.
Property rights have always played an important role in American life, but because some of America’s earliest property owners combined a rather broad understanding of property rights with a very limited understanding of who was endowed by their Creator with the right to be free we would have to go through a protracted Civil War to settle those differences. Today a decent respect for property rights as well as for the rights of all Americans demands a very careful consideration by any government entity before it takes action to confiscate somebody’s property.