Thomas Sowell

One of the reasons property rights do not get all the protection that the Constitution prescribes is that they are seen as special benefits to the affluent, which must give way to the general welfare. The old leftist phrase "property rights versus human rights" summarizes this mindset.

This ignores the value of property rights to the society as a whole, including people who own no property. Most Americans do not own agricultural land, but they get an abundance of food at affordable prices because farmers own both land and its produce as their private property, and therefore have incentives to produce far more efficiently than in countries where the land is owned by the government. The Soviet Union was a classic example of the latter, with hungry people despite an abundance of fertile land, inefficiently used under government control.

Loudoun County illustrates another danger in political confiscation of private property. It is precisely the wealthy and the affluent who gain by restricting other people's property rights. Although the average rich person -- by definition -- has more money than other people, the non-rich often have far more wealth in the aggregate, simply because they are more numerous.

In a free market with undiluted property rights, the non-rich would out-bid the rich for much land and use that land in ways that suit the circumstances of ordinary people. For example, grand estates would be broken up into smaller plots for more modest homes or used for building apartment complexes. That is what the affluent and the wealthy strive to prevent by government-imposed restrictions on land use. Such restrictions also increase the value of the existing estates of the rich.

California pioneered in such restrictions, years ago, which is why California real estate prices and apartment rents are out of sight. But Loudoun County is one of many other places that are now catching up, using the same legalistic techniques and the same political rhetoric about the environment, preventing "sprawl," and other pieties that beguile the gullible.

Thomas Sowell

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

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