Property rights are a fundamental necessity for liberty to be truly tangible and functional. If individuals cannot claim ownership of their goods, whether it be their domicile or their craft, to hold and mold on whatever terms they see fit, freedom is just an abstract concept.
Of course, even the most rabid individualists must acknowledge the securing of the public good is in the interest of that same individual since he must live and do business within the jurisdiction of society.
These tensions are at the center of battles over eminent domain, a perennial issue now directly relevant to the presidential campaign.
Republican front runner Donald Trump may believe the potential to beautify or make more functional a piece of land is a wonderful thing and justifies government either seizing or aiding private businesses in the seizure of land. And the law, at least since the Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London that the public good done through economic development is a perfectly fine legal rationale for eminent domain, may be on his side.
But that doesn’t change the philosophy of the issue. Is it moral, even supposing there was an absolute case for the benefits of a public works project, to speak of those who do not want to leave their property as being “in the way?” Does this not propagate an attitude that treats dissent with disdain and delegitimizes its objections because it stands in the way of progress?
There are two extremes- total government regulation of land or none. With the abuses of the feudal system evident, some of the Founders, most notably Thomas Jefferson, were for allodial ownership to land. Essentially, Congress would not sell off its land holdings in the interest of raising revenue but allow land to be settled and developed piecemeal, therefore allowing them to earn ownership through demonstrable ability.
The Constitution settles somewhere in the middle- Article 1, Section 8 lays out very narrow terms on which government may seize land for its own purposes and the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment ensures this is not done without compensation as kings and feudal lords were wont to do.
But the blatant disregard for the intent of these laws is all too evident- it’s hard to imagine the Founders okaying large swathes of land being forever cordoned off in federal parks or private businessmen abusing a limited government function to build amenities for their personal benefit.
Even if one accepts that there is a legal justification for such processes, it should never be viewed as wonderful since someone must lose and “fair market value” hardly takes into account the intrinsic value a family home may hold, but as a necessary evil.
Then there’s the question of who gets to define the “public good.” Does a simple plurality- 51%- of the elected body have enough authority to define this and implement a policy agenda? The Founders certainly did not think so because this is the characteristic action of a pure democracy, which America with its checks and balances is not. How much greater is the injustice then when a local level official, maybe a political appointee, partners with some businessmen and uses eminent domain to declare a private residence “blighted” so that a shopping mall may be built?
Within another, equally exigent political context- gun control- the same ideas are certainly a cause for outrage. The Second Amendment is absolute in saying the right to bear arms “shall not be infringed.” Yet, politicians speak of semantics and try to abridge that right, which has property at its heart, not through the proper channels of Constitutional amendment, but through executive action and regulation. And they cite the public good.
Is there fundamentally any real difference between the two? In the form of the action, yes, but in the deeper political philosophy, no.