(Janson Requist, 1776 Scholar) In 1792, James Madison penned, “That is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where the property which a man has in his personal safety and personal liberty is violated by arbitrary seizures of one class of citizens for the service of the rest.” Even before America’s founding, the ownership and control of personal property was recognized as an inalienable human right. As John Locke argued, people choose to expend time and energy to obtain property; thus, by mixing their labor with tangible or intangible goods, individuals acquire a moral right to keep and enjoy that property, the fruit of their labor. In addition to this ethical basis, private property rights are pragmatically beneficial, bolstering the economic dynamism of a society. According to the Heritage Foundation, nations with vibrant property freedom experience 50% greater annual economic growth compared to repressed countries. Unfortunately, despite America’s reputation for freedom and personal security, the United States government has dramatically curtailed private property rights in the past decade, plummeting 10% on the Property Rights Index. Given the value of private property rights, this recent infringement threatens the legitimacy and success of American government. In response, national and local authorities should restrict two main practices that threaten private property rights: NSA surveillance and urban revitalization.
After the seemingly stalwart Twin Towers crumbled into a fiery heap of rubble, the American people abruptly traded their liberty for the promise of security. This capitulation gave way to a heinous threat—overreaching government. Specifically, the National Security Agency (NSA) obtained power to monitor the personal information of Americans en masse through the expansion of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2005 (and later Executive Order 12333). Congress also recruited a secret court—the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Court (FISC)—to authorize search warrants for the new NSA spy project. Unlike warrants permitted by the Fourth Amendment, the FISC-issued warrants acquired the personal data of millions of people without specifying a date, time, place, or individual subject to monitoring.5 With this power, the NSA engaged in secret wiretapping, collection of private information from cellphone carriers, and mass storage of personal data. (More information here and here) This NSA surveillance undermined the constitutional right of citizens to be secure against “unreasonable searches and seizures” of their property, as stated in the 4th Amendment.
Recognizing the dangers of the NSA’s infraction, Congress passed the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015, which attempted to balance security concerns and property rights by re-establishing a domestic, constitutional warrant system. However, several provisions of this statute are deeply flawed. Thus, to further protect Americans’ private property rights, federal legislators should support three amendments to the USA FREEDOM Act: require a warrant system for collecting Americans’ international phone data, follow through on this year’s Congressional debate to revise section 702 of the Federal Intelligence and Surveillance Act to reestablish judicial review in monitoring international Internet content, and clarify ambiguous clauses such as “relevant to…an investigation.” These revisions will dramatically curtail the unconstitutional monitoring of Americans’ property, restoring the Fourth Amendment as a foundation of American government.
In an even more tangible violation, the inalienable property rights of Americans are rapidly dwindling under the emergence of a new, insidious adversary: urban revitalization. Although making a city look pretty and shiny might seem harmless, the city-beautification movement has sparked unintended repercussions. One such case is eminent domain abuse. Local governments frequently exercise the power of eminent domain—seizure of property for public uses—against property they deem unsightly or blighted. However, because the term blighted is highly ambiguous and elastic, many local officials use eminent domain simply to enrich the public coffers. According to the Institute for Justice, in a recent five-year period, over 10,000 abuses of eminent domain occurred to increase tax revenue. For example, in Lakewood, Ohio, the city government attempted to seize resident Jim Saleet’s dream home under an overly expansive definition of blighted: Mr. Saleet’s home did not have central air conditioning. After the seizure, the town council planned to turn the land over to a private developer to build an apartment complex and upscale shopping mall, both new sources of generous tax revenue. Every year, eminent domain demolishes the hopes thousands of Americans have for their property—property the government considers inferior.
To avoid the pitfalls of urban revitalization, Americans ought to hold local governments accountable through three actions. First, voters should approve state constitutional amendments, such as recently passed in Virginia, that restrict eminent domain usage to only legitimate public services, not beautification. Additionally, to control the number of revitalization projects, every urban renewal project over $2.5 million should require approval by 55% of voters (similar to Wheat Ridge, Colorado’s Initiative 300). (More information here and here) Finally, private citizens must maximize their options for protesting eminent domain abuse; many non-profit organizations, such as the Institute for Justice, offer pro bono legal services to assist residents in defending their property rights. These efforts will help alleviate the current catastrophe unfolding in the name of urban revitalization, thereby protecting local businesses and homeowners.
As Calvin Coolidge discerned, “Ultimately, property rights and personal rights are the same thing.” Sadly, American governments have mounted a threatening assault on individual property rights—from invading the personal security of innocent citizens to bulldozing homes the government decides are not pretty enough. To block this government overreach, citizens must call for the restoration of property freedom to revive local economies, thereby renewing America’s economic fabric. Moreover, defending private property rights will uphold an inalienable moral principle: the simple right of a person to own something. This principle lies at the heart of limited government and is a vital piece of the tapestry of American freedom.