March 13, 2012
To the Members of the 112th Congress:
I concluded a recent letter by reminding my fellow citizens that “[i]f we have any hope of restoring the Founders’ vision of limited, constitutional government, we must regain their understanding of the right to property.”
The House of Representatives took an important step in that direction by voting to pass the Private Property Rights Protection Act, which denies all federal economic development funds for a period of two years to any state or locality that commits eminent domain abuse. The bill also gives property owners a legal recourse to fight economic development takings.
The Act was made necessary by the Supreme Court’s terrible decision in the 2005 case, Kelo v. New London. A bare majority of the Court held that it did not violate the Constitution‘s Fifth Amendment for the city of New London, Connecticut, to take Suzette Kelo’s cherished, well-maintained home in a decent neighborhood, in order to give it (and other property nearby) to Pfizer Corporation. The Court said that the transfer could help New London’s economic redevelopment efforts, so it benefited the public and thereby served a “public purpose.” This is despite the fact that the Fifth Amendment explicitly says: “nor shall private property be taken for publicuse, without just compensation” (my italics).
The Court tried to get around this by saying that “public purpose” is the same as “public use.” But it is not. As the dissent pointed out, our Founders understood “public use” to mean that “the government owns, or the public has a legal right to use, the property, as opposed to taking it for any public purpose or necessity whatsoever…. The term ‘public use’… means that either the government or its citizens as a whole must actually ’employ’ the taken property.”
The Founders held this view because of their understanding of the right to property. As I said in my earlier letter, they held that every person has the right to acquire property and to possess it without being interfered with by other people or government. In the Founders’ view, one of government’s most basic purposes is to protect the right of people to possess their property unmolested.
Every government must have the power to take private property if necessary in order to construct government facilities like jails or public facilities like roads. If it did not have such power, it would not be able to do its job of protecting our natural rights. When we agree to be part of a political society, we implicitly give government (whether local, county, state, or national) this power of eminent domain.
But this power cannot be used to violate the very rights that it is created to protect. The right to possess our property means that we control it and get to keep what is ours. We can admit or exclude other people from it as we see fit (“No Trespassing!”). Under normal circumstances, even the police cannot enter a person’s property without a search warrant. Government cannot tax property without our consent, and it cannot even take it for a public use unless it gives us “just compensation.”
As the Kelo dissenters pointed out, all of these limitations reflect the Founders’ deep understanding that our property is a part of us, and if government can take it from one person and give it to someone else, it denies that we are free people. The dissent quoted Justice Samuel Chase, who wrote in 1798 that “[a]n act of the Legislature (for I cannot call it a law) contrary to the great first principles of the social compact, cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority…. A few instances will suffice to explain what I mean…. [A] law that takes property from A. and gives it to B: It is against all reason and justice, for a people to entrust a Legislature with such powers; and, therefore, it cannot be presumed that they have done it” (Calder v. Bull).
Justice Chase had it right. And now, as America’s constitutional conversation continues, so does the House of Representatives. Some members of Congress supported the bill because public purpose takings tend to appropriate property from poor and minority owners to give it to powerful, politically-connected corporations. That’s true, and it’s a good reason to oppose them. But it is not the best reason. Any taking from one person (rich or poor) to give to another (rich or poor) undermines the basis of all liberty because it denies that people are by nature free to “dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature,” as John Locke put it.
The Supreme Court drifted from the Founders’ understanding of a legitimate “taking” because government has drifted from the Founders’ understanding of what government should do. Public use has expanded into “public purpose” because government has expanded into so many more purposes than protecting rights: for example, “re-developing” an area of New London that wasn’t even blighted.
The American people have taken a lively part in this constitutional conversation. Over 90% opposed the Kelo decision; indeed, they were outraged by it. Many states responded by restricting “public purpose” takings, and some state supreme courts, like Ohio’s, struck down this misuse of eminent domain on the ground that it violates their own constitutions. Across the board, Americans saw clearly that Kelo was a decision “against all reason and justice.” Employing many of the political instruments available to them, the people and their representatives have been doing what they can to defend their fundamental right to property against the unreason and injustice that gained a bare toehold in our politics in the Kelo decision.
Now it is the Senate’s turn to join in this important American conversation, when it deliberates on the Private Property Rights Protection Act. We will see if they take the opportunity to recover an important part of our Founders’ reason and justice by restoring Americans’ right to property.