Walter E. Williams

"Imprimis" is Hillsdale College's monthly publication that has over 1.25 million readers. It's Hillsdale's way of sharing the ideas of the many distinguished speakers invited to their campus. And, I might add, Hillsdale College is one of the few colleges where students get a true liberal arts education, absent the nonsense seen on many campuses.

The January edition of "Imprimis" contains an important speech by former New Jersey Superior Court Judge Andrew P. Napolitano titled "Property Rights After the Kelo Decision." For those who haven't kept up, the Kelo decision is the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 decision that upheld the city of New London, Connecticut's condemnation of the property of one private party so that another private party could use it to build an office facility. Such a decision was a flagrant violation of the letter and spirit of the Fifth Amendment, which reads in part, "nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." Public use, according to the Constitution's framers, means uses such as roads, bridges, and forts.

While most Americans appreciate the concept of yours and mine, Judge Napolitano's speech gives it greater focus. Formerly a law professor, Napolitano says, "When teaching law students the significance of private property, we tell them that each owner of such property has something called a 'bundle of rights.' The first of these is the right to use the property. The second is the right to alienate the property. The third and greatest is the right to exclude people from the property."

Can the government force one to sell his property? James Madison said yes, so long as it was for a public use and the owner was paid a fair market value. Thomas Jefferson was opposed to a person being forced to sell his property for a public use, arguing that the essence of private property is the right to exclude anyone, including government, from the property. But Madison's view prevailed, hence the Fifth Amendment provision.

In recent years, state and local governments have been running roughshod over private property rights in ways that would have horrified our founders. In the 1959 Courtesy Sandwich Shop case, a New York court held that if the tax collector collects more taxes by taking the private property of one party and transferring it to another, that's a public use permitted by the Constitution.


Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read Walter Williams' column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.