Book Review by Nathaniel R. Dickinson
Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st Century America by Timothy Sandefur
Cato Institute 2006
The introduction to Timothy Sandefur's new book Cornerstone of Liberty notes that Katrina showed just how much property means to us. Events of this nature certainly get one to thinking about things that matter. The author states that private property is an essential part of the human experience, and people treasure the feeling of self-sufficiency and independence. Then there is the immense personal meaning of owned objects. And, property is an essential ingredient for economic growth and prosperity.
Sandefur points out that in the 20th Century attempts to abolish private properties surfaced. Political and legal thinkers came to reject lessons that the Founders taught us. They argued that property is created by society or government rather than by the individual. Obviously he would agree with an owner saying "hey," wait a minute, we bought it and look at what Articles IV, V, and XIV of the United States Constitution say right of people to be secure in their houses against unreasonable seizures, nor shall private property be taken without just compensation, nor shall any State deprive any person of property without due process of the law. All of this is very clear.
The author makes excellent points in stating that people who have suffered a robbery can attest to the terrible consequences of property crime. The shock and intense feelings of personal violations stay with victims long afterwards. Good analogies could be made to many of big brother's abuses. Should not the government, if it desires land, whether developed or not, be required to proceed in a manner similar to what the private sector must, that is pay the price the owner is willing to sell it for? A quote from James Madison is cited "that alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own." Of course, Mr. Madison was rather old-fashioned. Reference is then made to the 20th Century thinkers who argued that property is really created by society rather than individuals. Needless to say, this undoubtedly does not apply to the land itself, hopefully. And, there are many individuals capable of creating impressive structures all by themselves.
Sandefur points out that over time property owners became increasingly burdened by laws that tell them what they can do with their property and exhausting bureaucratic requirements are imposed. This, of course, is another form of abuse that needs rectification. Kelo versus New London and the use of eminent domain necessarily enters into the discussion. Fortunately, as he notes, this sparked national outcry. Hopefully, the people of a once great nation will wake up and rebel before all is lost.
The second section is entitled "Why Property Rights Are Important." It begins with a case in Bristol, Connecticut, where an elderly family living on their 32-acre homestead refused to sell their property. City officials stated that they would obtain more tax revenue, if it were owned by the nearby metal corporation. The matter went to State court with the family stating that the Fifth Amendment only dealt with taking for public use. The court refused to intervene. Subsequently they were ordered to move out, even though the company had left town. The whole fiasco tore the community apart. Maybe those who foisted these abuses were trained in how to produce such hostilities. What a sad commentary.
Eminent domain, the author notes, has created a multi-billion dollar industry. Cited are cases in Merriam, Kansas; Mesa, Arizona; and a Trump deal, or steal, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. One attorney is quoted as saying that organizations are using cities as their personal real estate agents. What Sandefur says should be enough to make the people throughout our nation rebel, but where are they? Could it be that the multitude are non-ruffling wimps, whose major concern is the acquisition of stuff?
It is noted that in the Kelo case the United States Supreme Court held that the Constitution does not forbid such condemnations, even though the Fifth Amendment requires that it be for public use. Sandefur states that five justices argued that promoting economic development is a traditional and long accepted function of government and the court declared that public use is the same as public benefit. Does anyone know how to go about impeaching and then removing justices? This case calls for a re-examining of eminent domain practices.
Sandefur goes on to say that eminent domain is only one of the many ways the government has at its command to deprive us of our property rights. A growing array of laws and regulations deprives countless owners of the value of their properties prohibiting them from using it, selling it, and building on it. It is difficult to understand why the citizens of a once great nation tolerate such. Maybe they have little or no concern for the other guy. If this is the case, one might consider the possibility that it might happen to them. Such a wonderful way for a servant to treat his flock.
A case is noted involving Lake Tahoe. Some seven hundred landowners filed suit arguing that the responsible agency had taken away their property when they prohibited them from using it. Two decades of litigation followed. Three hundred of the owners died prior to the Supreme Court's taking up of the case. Justice Stevens subsequently stated that the government takes away so much property from so many people that it cannot possibly afford to pay for it, and since this is true it can ignore the Constitution's compensation requirement. Wow, hard to believe! The author continues this horrendous story by noting that many of today's intellectual leaders view property rights as unimportant. Lock and load.
Hopefully, enough has been said about the contents of Cornerstone of Liberty to compel the readers of this review to obtain a copy, read it thoroughly, and then make a commitment to do their part in the defense of what are supposed to be inalienable rights. The bulk of the remainder of Sandefur's splendid book is devoted to a very logical defense of freedom, individual responsibilities, and property rights.
The author makes it apparent that he is very well-read and an admirer of the great philosophical writings. In addition he qualifies as a philosopher in his own right. Property rights, he states, are essential to our lives. Any country that tramples on them, ignores or violates them is trifling with one of humanity's primary values. Plato, he notes, debated the role of property and every political philosopher since then has. Sandefur recognizes that many animals have a sphere of privacy or territory, that children early-on discover the idea of "mine." Then the statements that houses are more than buildings and there is a sentimental value to property since they worked hard for it and earned it, and the importance of private property in enabling people to define individual personalities. Of course the latter is a no-no to social engineers. Many interesting discussions follow the Shakers, the Russian Revolution, prison camps, censorship, property-less societies, humanity originally living in perfect harmony with nature, no initiative without property, the idea that individuals can not think for themselves, Frederick Douglass, John Locke, Walden Pond, among many others. All indeed very thought-provoking. Sandefur makes it very apparent where he feels our left leaders are trying to take us over. At times it is hard to believe that Sandefur is a lawyer for a large foundation. It is too bad that there are not many more in the legal profession with his insight and desire to tell it the way it is.
The third section of this impressive creation deals with the place of property rights in the American Constitution. The author starts by noting that the Founders understood the vital role that such rights play in human life. He notes that in recent years these protections have been ignored, denigrated, and swept aside. He poses the question of why government exists and states that it should merely recognize and enforce natural rules of right and wrong. Sandefur identifies these rules, referring to the teachings of John Locke, who inspired the Founders. Emphasis is on the exclusive right to own ourselves and use ourselves, and that freedom is not the absence of law, but rather a goal to be preserved through law. The importance of property rights in guarantying the right to pursue happiness is emphasized. Without this there would be chaos. Slavery and the treatment of Indian tribes are noted as serious violations of property rights. Many legal cases are referenced. The New Deal paradigm that brought an unprecedented expansion of the economy and the redistribution of property is discussed in detail.
This is followed by a section entitled "The State of Property Rights Today," which chronicles wide array of government rules and actions that abuse property rights, including environmental protection laws, regulatory takings, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, rent control, scenic regulations, historic preservations, architectural design review, the Endangered Species Act, and wetland laws, among others that confiscate some of the wealth of property owners. Then there is the matter of eminent domain where government seizes the property outright. Each case is enough to give one horrendous nightmares. Throw them all together and it would be more than enough to keep a thinking person from ever falling asleep. On top of these are the procedural roadblocks when people try to protect their rights. And the court delays that can stretch for decades. Oh, what a wonderful country this used to be.
The final offering by Sandefur is entitled "What Can Be Done?" The reader by now is totally frustrated. Hopefully, some relief will be provided. The author's first suggestion is to have a few stiff drinks (no just kidding trying to lighten things up some). Passing a federal reform that would restrict the use of federal funding for projects involving eminent domain is one. Then recognizing that state laws and constitutions can provide greater protections and amending state constitutions with changes in wording. Property owners must be given their day in court and changes must be made in the compensation of people in regulatory takings. Then people must fight for their right to property, and they must organize. Specific groups are noted, but unfortunately the Property Rights Foundation of America is not included. Grassroots activism is also vital. People must demand reform. Sandefur emphasizes the importance of education. Unfortunately, this finale does not do much for the reviewer, but Sandefur is being totally honest and surely knows that the people of this country need a stiff kick in the rear, stiff enough to initiate a rebirth. The radical left is winning due to the apathy of the populace and they are easy prey. Where did traditional moral standards go?