Property rights are essential to the ideas of liberty. Murray Rothbard explains this in The Ethics of Liberty.
“[t]he concept of “rights” only makes sense as property rights. For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights, but the former rights lose their absoluteness and clarity and become fuzzy and vulnerable when property rights are not used as the standard… for our discussion, human rights, when not put in terms of property rights, turn out to be vague and contradictory, causing liberals to weaken those rights on behalf of “public policy” or the “public good”.
He goes on to explain:
In short, a person does not have a “right to freedom of speech”; what he does have is the right to hire a hall and address the people who enter the premises. He does not have a “right to freedom of the press”; what he does have is the right to write or publish a pamphlet, and to sell that pamphlet to those who are willing to buy it (or to give it away to those who are willing to accept it). Thus, what he has in each of these cases is property rights, including the right of free contract and transfer which form a part of such rights of ownership. There is no extra “right of free speech” or free press beyond the property rights that a person may have in any given case.
So in a country where we say we value human rights, do we have any respect for property rights?
Eminent domain has received a lot of attention over the last couple of years especially since the Supreme Court ruled that eminent domain could be used to take land for private use if it serves public interest. (Kelo v. City of New London). Fortunately, many of us will never be victims of eminent domain. Most of us, however, are victims of city codes and city code enforcers.
Ian “Freeman” Bernard, the host of a syndicated, libertarian radio talk show Free Talk Live was recently given a 3 day jail sentence (plus another 90 days for contempt of court) for having a couch that is used for birdwatching in his yard. He was refusing to move the couch. I have received citations for having my trash cans sitting on the side of my house instead of behind my house. I refused to comply, but luckily no one forced the issue. My brother recently received a warning from his city for having weeds higher than 18 inches tall in his fenced in garden. He cut them. (I would have gone out there every week with a ruler and cut them to 17 inches, but that is just my rebellious nature.) These are all examples of how local governments ignore our property rights. Why should I not be free to do whatever I like on my property if I am not harming someone elses property?
You may be asking yourself, “Well how are we to prevent blight or unsafe conditions without codes?” Or you may thinking ” Aren’t you violating my property rights if what you are doing on your property is lowering my property value?”
First I will address blight. Often blight is in the eye of the beholder. A couch sitting in a front yard may look absurd to one person and absolutely charming to another. If we lived in a more voluntary society, where the heavy hand of a tyrannical government could not be used to enforce rules only based on a few peoples’ taste, how would that society deal with disputes of this nature. I think one of two things would occur. The person that thought the couch was absurd would have to address the issue directly with the owner of the couch or they would simply have to get over it. Without the government doing their dirty work, I believe most people would just get over it. Others would address it with the owner and if a dispute could not be settle among themselves they could take it to a private arbitrator.
Voluntary membership in neighborhood association would also help safeguard you from having to live next to a hot pink house with lime green trim. Even if joining was voluntary, I think it is likely most would join so that they would have a reasonable avenue to settle disputes and to prevent disputes.
As far as safety goes, there is no real reason for the government to have such codes in the first place. In a more voluntary society insurance companies and banks would most likely have their own safety guidelines. It is unlikely that they would voluntarily enter into a contract with a homeowner who’s electrical work was a fire waiting to happen. If the homeowner owned their home outright and did not think he needed insurance than I guess he would be free to live in a death trap at his own peril.
The property value argument just doesn’t hold any water to me. The are hundreds of things that others could do around you that could affect your property value. There could be bad teachers at bad public schools (I know bad public schools is kind of redundant), a neighbor could be selling cheap so get out from under a bad mortgage, a neighbor could get foreclosed on, or a neighbor could just have a nicer house for the same price at the same time you are trying to sell yours. None of these neighbors would be “violating” your property rights with these actions, so how could you say they were violating your rights by having a couch in their front yard. Having your property value driven down by conditions beyond your control is just a risk of being a property owner. None the less, for those that still worry about the value of their property being driven down in the absence of codes, I believe that what I described above would take care of most of this problem.
Arbitrary codes are not the only way that property rights are undermined. Property taxes are completely antithetical to the idea of private ownership of property. If a you must pay a tax in order to keep your property are you really the owner or is the local government or state the owner? If they can seize your property and sell it on the courthouse steps for non-payment are you really an owner or are you just renting it from the government?
For those of us who value liberty, we must acknowledge that the fight for our “rights” really begins and ends with property rights.