Some Notes On Property Rights And The Environment

private property

“Property in a thing consists not merely in its ownership and possession, but in the unrestricted right of use, enjoyment, and disposal. Anything which destroys any of the elements of property to that extent, destroys the property itself. The substantial value of property lies in its use. If the right of use be denied, the value of the property is annihilated and ownership is rendered a barren right.” by Washington State Supreme Court Justice Richard B. Sanders (Fifth Amendment Treatise, 1997).

Individual rights are inseparable from property rights. The United States of America is the most prosperous nation on the planet because the land contains abundant natural resources and the people have been free to use those resources to create wealth.

Those rights have been increasingly diminished by the environmental movement and their fellow travelers in the Federal government by laws restricting access to land and by bans or moratoria on where one could explore for and produce natural resources which are the engines of our economy.

The principle that an individual be free to reap the fruits of his labor, or suffer loss from imprudent action, is fundamental, and provides economic incentive for a property owner to use his property wisely. But to use property wisely, the owner must be confidant that the government, or judicial system, will protect his rights.

The U.S. Constitution was written to restrict the government’s ability to infringe upon our rights. The U.S. Supreme Court (Lynch vs Household Finance, 1972) affirms the relationship between freedom and property rights: “The dichotomy between personal liberties and property rights is a false one. Property does not have rights. People have rights. The right to enjoy property without unlawful deprivation, no less than the right to speak or the right to travel, is in truth, a ‘personal’ right…a fundamental interdependence exists between personal right to liberty and the personal right to property. Neither could have meaning without the other.”

There have been too many cases where one’s ability to use private property has been restricted because the land may, for example, harbor some “endangered” species or contain a very loosely defined wetland. We’ve also seen government interfere in the market place through crony capitalism to the detriment of private business.

Although property rights are fundamental, they have never been absolute. There are three kinds of restrictions.

The first restriction is similar to the “Golden Rule.” Use of property must not harm the property of another.

Second, governments have the power of eminent domain under which they can take property for some public use; but they must provide just compensation. A trouble here is the increasingly fuzzy definition of “public use.” There is an emerging trend to condemn private property and small businesses, and turn the property over to larger businesses.

Third, private property rights are infringed through “lawful” actions such as local zoning and other regulations, and, increasingly through environmental restrictions.

Environmentalism should be about conservation, making the best use of our resources. Unfortunately, environmentalism is not about the environment anymore. It has become the religion of control freaks; control of land use, control of where we can live, control of what kind of homes we build, control of what method of transportation we use, and control of where businesses buy their supplies. Environmental regulations, more than anything else, are infringing upon our property rights, stifling our businesses, threatening our food supplies, and even endangering our national security.

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As George Washington warned, under other circumstances, “The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own…”

The incremental encroachment of regulations on our property will, if left unchecked, continue the erosion of our freedoms and our ability to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

See also: A Short History of Mining Law

Grijalva’s Proposed Change to Mining Law Would Be Disastrous For America

Environmental Sophistry

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