By Tibor Machan: Freedom New Mexico columnist
There was a bit of good news recently from New York state, that bastion of modern liberalism and American statism!
As The New York Times reported Dec. 4, “In a 3-to-2 decision, a panel of the Appellate Division of (NY) State Supreme Court in Manhattan annulled the state’s 2008 decision to take property for the (Columbia University) expansion project, saying that its condemnation procedure was unconstitutional.”
And how right that is. The Times also reported: “The majority opinion was scathing in its appraisal of how the ‘scheme was hatched,’ using terms like ‘sophistry’ and ‘idiocy’ in describing how the state went about declaring the neighborhood blighted, the main prerequisite for eminent domain.”
Not that this has the legal capacity to undermine that equally sophistic and idiotic ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court back in July 2005, in the case of Kilo v. City of New London, Conn., where the good city fathers condemned private property so as to lease it to some big prospective taxpayer (a scheme that ended with the property remaining unused to this day).
But it may just slow down the perverted progress of the reactionary use of eminent domain law, placing a small monkeywrench in that evil bulldozer.
Private property rights are the bedrock of a bona fide free country. Just for starters, the rights to freedom of religion and the press directly depend on it — if private property can lawfully be taken by state agencies, based on spurious, subjective grounds like blight, any religious or journalistic practice not approved of by state agents becomes vulnerable to censorship or worse.
The right to private property, if respected and competently protected, renders it possible for the right to liberty to be secure in innumerable realms. Liberty’s legal defense requires it.
With such a right given legal recognition and protection, dissidents and minorities have the ability to escape retaliation from an angry majority that finds the dissent and refusal to join them to thwart its agenda.
If the history of authoritarian and totalitarian rule has taught anything, one vital fact is that this right, identified throughout human history — by the likes of Aristotle and Thucydides and, later more systematically by the English philosopher John Locke (who taught the American founders about it) — is the major bulwark against tyranny.
Of course the right to one’s life is more basic and if it is ignored and violated as it is by the institution of slavery, then all bets are off and the law of the land deserves zero respect, let alone obedience. But the right to private property is nearly as fundamental as that since if one has no legal right to keep others out of one’s own realm, one is for all practical purposes being placed into servitude, almost made a slave.
This is why the Kilo decision by the Supreme Court was such a catastrophic blow to liberty and why even a short step away from it, as the New York Appellate Division’s ruling took, can only be a welcome development where human liberty is concerned. But it should by no means lead to complacency.
Everywhere in legal circles, not the least in President Barack Obama’s team of legal associates, basic rights are under full assault.
With the New York court’s ruling a bit of hope has become justified. But as with liberty in general, here, too, eternal vigilance is the price and other courts and potential guardians of human liberty must not relent as they work hard to reaffirm that Americans — indeed, all human beings — are sovereign agents and have basic rights, among them the right to private property.