Thomas Sowell

WITH police on hand to try to maintain order, the Loudoun County (Virginia) board of supervisors recently imposed severe restrictions on the building of homes, despite angry protesters. The board's plan allows only one house to be built for every 10 acres in some places and for every 20 or 50 acres in other places.

Opponents of these restrictions accused the supervisors of violating their property rights. One of their signs read: "Thou shalt not steal."

Property rights are one of the most misunderstood things in law and one of the most disregarded things in politics. The vast amount of land that the Loudoun County supervisors are micro-managing does not belong to them or to Loudoun County. It belongs to its respective individual owners.

According to the Constitution of the United States, the government cannot take private property without compensation. However, judges have been letting governments get away with doing just that for about half a century now. So long as the title to the property remains in the hands of its owners, the courts let local, state and federal governments do pretty much what they please, even if that destroys much of the value of the property.

From an economic point of view, there is no real difference between confiscating half of someone's property and reducing its value by half. When county officials drastically restrict the uses to which land can be put, that land becomes less valuable on the market. A farmer cannot sell his land to someone who wants to build an apartment complex if the county regulations make it illegal to build an apartment complex.

When the use of land is restricted to ways that only the wealthy can afford, that eliminates a major part of the demand for that land -- and a major part of its value. Land use laws are just one way that governments can confiscate much of the value of private property without having to compensate the owner. Where there are stringent rent control laws, as in New York City, the cost of the services that a landlord is required to provide can exceed the rents he is allowed to collect, so that an apartment building can end up with a zero value -- or even a negative value.

That is why thousands of buildings in New York have been simply abandoned by their owners and ended up boarded up. The entire value of the building has been destroyed by government, without compensation.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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