Monday, March 30, 2009

I Have Rights, But You Don't

It is not uncommon for an individual or group to advocate contradictory political positions. Such a situation is currently on display in neighborhoods near the Medical Center. Neighborhoods in the area are fighting to defend their property rights while simultaneously fighting to violate the property rights of a local developer.

The neighborhoods of Center City, Southampton, and Boulevard Oaks are supporting legislation that will remove the ability of the Medical Center to use eminent domain to seize property. The Medical Center has possessed this power for fifty years, and in recent years has used it to condemn numerous houses and thereby violate the property rights of the owners of those homes. Home owners in the area fear that they could be next.

For more than a year, two of these neighborhoods—Southampton and Boulevard Oaks—have fought to stop Buckhead Development from constructing the Ashby High Rise. The neighborhoods have enlisted the help of City Hall to delay the project, and thereby have violated the property rights of the developers.

The right to property is the right to own, use, and dispose of material values. Ownership means control in both the use of a property and the terms of its sale. A property owner has a moral right to use his property as he judges, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. Eminent domain violates the right to property by compelling the owner to sell against his desires and judgment. Similarly, City Hall (and the neighborhoods) is violating the rights of Buckhead by prohibiting the developer from using his property as he chooses.

These contradictory positions by the neighborhoods greatly undermines their credibility and their argument. They cannot effectively defend their own property rights while simultaneously advocating the violation of Buckhead’s rights. Rights are not relative—they apply to all individuals in all situations, no matter the expediency of the moment.

The purpose of government is the protection of individual rights, including property rights. The neighborhoods are correct and justified to fight the use of eminent domain—government power—to take their property. They are wrong and unjustified to use that same government power to stop Buckhead from using its property. In principle, if eminent domain is wrong so are the attempts to stop the Ashby High Rise by political means.

In advocating the violation of Buckhead’s property rights, the neighborhoods embrace the premise that government can and should control the use of private property. No matter how they try to justify their position on Ashby—the will of the people, the good of the community (or neighborhood), or anything similar—the same arguments can be used in favor of eminent domain. If it is justified to use force to stop Ashby for the purpose of “protecting” a neighborhood, it is justified to use force for the purpose of economic development.

In truth, the use of force to violate rights can never be justified. Such force compels an individual to act contrary to his own judgment and in defiance of his own values. To argue otherwise is to embrace the premise that might makes right—that political power supersedes morality and individual rights. One can then only quibble over the use of that power and the details of its implementation. And that is precisely the position the neighborhoods now find themselves in.

Consistency and justice demand that the neighborhoods support the right of Buckhead to build the Ashby High Rise. To do otherwise is to advocate that property rights can be violated if enough people, or those with political power, deem it proper. Yet that is the very principle that they are fighting in regard to eminent domain.

In fighting eminent domain the neighborhoods have morality and the principles of individual rights on their side. What they must realize is that those same principles apply to Buckhead. If they want to have their cake, they must let Buckhead have its cake. But if they choose to eat Buckhead’s cake, then they cannot complain when the Medical Center wants to eat theirs.

No comments: