Opinion: Daily Journal

When Property Rights Are History

RALEIGH – Regular readers of the “Daily Journal” might guess that one of the best ways to grab my attention is to use the word “history.” If you want to sell me on a new education policy, argue that it has some relationship to history instruction, for example. Heck, if you want to sell me a new insurance policy, drop “history” into the advertising copy. It might work.

Basically, I’m a history nut. And yet I do not believe that the government should use compulsion to protect historic properties. Unfortunately, many governments in North Carolina and elsewhere have done exactly that – enacting ordinances that create historic districts within which owners of private property are restricted from exercising their rights.

It also bothers me that these regulations are so often imposed without just compensation, as required by federal and state constitutions. That is, localities simply tell property owners that they cannot renovate their homes, or tear down an old building to make way for a new one, all the while failing to compensate the property owners for their lost use. The property may not be confiscated altogether, an act which clearly requires payment, but its value may be significantly denuded because of the historic-preservation restriction, an act which should just as clearly require payment.

I say it also bothers me that the regulations aren’t accompanied by just compensation because even if they were, I would still have a problem with government using its coercive powers to protect properties in which some might have an historical interest. Preserving history per se cannot be considered a core function of government. No one enjoys a right to look at someone else’s old porch or dig in someone else’s backyard. I might wish to do these things, but that doesn’t mean you have a legal obligation to let me. It matters not that I might have the ear of a politician, or the skill to form an interest group to press for a law creating the obligation. It is still wrong.

There are some important exceptions. Governments as institutions may legitimately be thought to bear the responsibility to preserve their own history – and we as citizens may be legitimately thought responsible for the cost of that preservation through taxes. Thus, states ought to make provision to preserve key founding and legal documents, as well as key locations where those documents were designed and their underlying principles formed and debated. An archival function, in other words, is traditional and defensible. But to go beyond that to require that whole swaths of citizens give up full rights over their homes and businesses, either for purposes of historical investigation or tourist attraction, is to transgress the limited-government principles enshrined in those very archived documents.

Because my passion for history is hardly unique, I expect that a voluntary approach to historical preservation would accomplish a great deal more than advocates of the status quo believe. Don’t discount sentimental value, for starters. My own family has preserved (albeit with some structural renovations) the old house, well over a century old, in which multiple generations of Simpsons (my mother’s name) were born and lived in rural Mecklenburg County. There are also practical reasons why many property owners might want to agree to forgo certain renovations or changes. Historic districts can be popular places to visit and live, thus increasing property values. Yes, there may be some in a neighborhood or business district who don’t agree, who think that they will benefit more from change than from continuity. Why not try persuasion? That’s what free societies are all about.

Compulsory historic preservation resembles other government programs in a basic sense: it involves a group with political power seeking to receive benefits without paying the cost. If you like to look at someone else’s old house, or trees for that matter, be willing to pay for it if asked. Don’t be rude.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.