Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The most basic right

When one mentions political rights, the Bill of Rights is what usually comes to mind. In particular, free speech, free press, freedom of worship, right to a speedy jury trial, the right to counsel in court proceedings, and the protections against unreasonable searches and cruel and unusual punishments, come easily to mind. If you are not a democrat, the right to bear arms might come to mind. For some, who believe in "penumbras" the right to privacy and the right to abortion might come to mind. The most basic right, however is not mentioned explicitly, although it is implied by the third and fourth amendments, and the eminent domain clause of the fifth. It is the right to own and be secure in one's own property.

Indeed many of the above rights can be seen as extensions of this right. If I own this altar and this goat, then they are mine, and I can do as please with them. If I want to sacrifice the goat to Zeus, then that is my affair, and nothing you think about it matters. In a like manner, if I own this printing press, ink and paper and I want to combine them in a way that makes fun of my representative's voting record, then I can do that. If I further want to trade my printed papers for money, so long as my trading partner owns the the money, then it is no one else's business. The Democrats, of course, don't actually recognize this right. The Republicans often merely play lip service to it.

One problem is that this right, like most others, cannot be absolute. If each piece of property were a hermetically sealed unit, then perhaps one could have untrammeled rights over it. However since humans live in close proximity to each other, it is possible for me to use my property in such a way as to deny my neighbor the use of his or her property. Sorting all of this out is one of the valid roles of the government. That role, however, is one of the governmental powers most subject to abuse. Although conservatives often tout local governments as the bodies most responsive to the will of the people, local governments are often the most abusive of the right to be secure in one's property. It is easier for small special interests to seize the reins of power in a locality than in a larger governmental unit. Property rights are abused by local governments through the manipulation of zoning and building codes, the abusive use imminent domain, and a myriad of other ways small and large. This not to say that local governments should have no control over property. Zoning codes and the like are essential tools. These tools, however, are far to often used by local vested interests to forestall competition, control "undesirable" groups, or merely enforce the aesthetic preferences of the local gentry.

No comments: