Your Land or Your Liberty

Imagine you're an entrepreneur planning to build your own business-but first the government forces you to hand over 10 percent of your land. That's exactly what happened to Florence Dolan in Tigard, Oregon. And the story illustrates just how important property rights are to America's entire system of freedoms. Dolan owns a thriving plumbing and electric supply business, and she applied for permits to expand the buildings. City officials agreed to give her the permits-under one condition. Dolan would have to turn over a tenth of her property to the city for storm drainage and a bike path. Now Florence Dolan is as civic-minded as anyone else, but this forced "tithe" to the city government struck her as out of line. She took the case to court, and it went all the way to the United States Supreme Court before she finally won her point. The irony is that the case should not have been necessary in the first place. After all, the Fifth Amendment protects citizens against government seizure of private property. The amendment includes what is called a "takings clause," which says that whenever the government takes away private property for public use, it must compensate the owner at a fair market value. But beginning with New Deal legislation in the 1930s, government regulatory agencies began to disregard the takings clause. And the Supreme Court refused to intervene, declaring that property rights are less important than other constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech and of the press. But the Court could not have been more wrong. The truth is that property rights actually undergird other crucial rights. To understand why, we need only look at places like the former Soviet Union. The late Soviet dictator, Leonid Brezhnev, ordered citizens to register with the state whenever they purchased typewriters, copying machines, and even carbon paper. Why? So that authorities could trace the production of underground literature, such as newspapers and Bibles. Regulation of private property was one tool the Soviet government used to track Christians and other dissidents and throw them behind bars. In other words, by depriving citizens of the right to private property, the Soviets were able to deprive them of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. Back in 1775, the Virginia patriot Arthur Lee saw this connection clearly. He wrote: "The right of property is the guardian of every other right, and to deprive a people of this is in fact to deprive them of their liberty." Scriptural teaching supports the importance of private property, when it is acquired and used according to God's law. In fact, two of the Ten Commandments specifically protect the right to property: You shall not steal, and you shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. So we ought to fight vigorously when the government tries to take away property without compensation. Because the right to private property is not just about protecting your home or business. As Arthur Lee said 200 years ago, it's also the "guardian" of all other freedoms.


Chuck Colson


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