Jewish World Review Dec. 3, 2003 / 8 Kislev, 5764

Thomas Sowell

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The high costs of busybodies, Part II | A reader wrote recently about his father, who has been a farmer, but is now ready to retire. His father figured on selling his land to get some money for his golden retirement years. But he found that he cannot get anywhere near the land's market value because busybodies have passed laws that destroy most of that value by restricting the sale of farmland.

The rationale for such laws is "preserving farmland." Think about it. Two of our biggest problems today are obesity and agricultural surpluses. The last thing we need to do is keep farmland from being sold to those who want to use it to build housing, businesses or other things.

Even if we accept, for the sake of argument, the notion that farmland needs to be preserved in order to serve some great national interest, the Constitution of the United States says that private property cannot be taken by the government without just compensation.

When the government destroys half the value of someone's property, that is the same thing economically as taking half of that property. But, because the farmer is left owning all his land, judges have let politicians get away with essentially confiscating much of its value without having to pay any compensation.

People who lead crusades to preserve farmland usually know little about farming and less about economics. Yet they think that they have a right to prevent other people from making mutually agreeable transactions, when that goes against the fetishes of third parties.

Busybodies may flatter themselves that they are wiser or nobler than others — which is perhaps the biggest benefit from being a busybody — but the Constitution of the United States says that all citizens are entitled to the equal protection of the laws.

In other words, people who want to wring their hands about farmlands or wetlands, or about some obscure toad or snake, have no more rights than people who don't care two cents about such things. It is hard for those who have presumptions of being the morally anointed to accept that, but that is what the Constitution says.

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>Unfortunately, too many judges are ready to fudge or fake what the Constitution says because they too share the vision of the anointed. So they downgrade property rights and let third parties impose their pet notions on others, using the power of government to violate the rights of those who do not agree with them.

What makes a lot of the talk about "preserving" or "saving" farmland or other things as phony as a three-dollar bill is that the real agenda is often very different — namely, keeping out people who do not have the income or the inclination to share the lifestyle of the anointed.

The real reason for preventing farmland from being sold to those who might build housing on it is that the people who live in that housing might not be as upscale as those already living nearby. Developers — heaven forbid — might build apartments or townhouses in a community where people live in single-family homes.

In other words, developers might build some of that "affordable housing" that some people talk so much about and do so much to prevent.

The rationale for laws forbidding farmers from selling their land to whoever wants to buy it is that existing residents have a right to "preserve the character" of "our community." But these lofty words are lying words.

Only sloppy thinking allows sloppy words to pass muster. There is no such thing as "our community." Nobody owns the whole community. Each individual owns his or her own property — and other individuals have the same right to own or sell their own property.

If the busybodies want to put their money where their mouth is, they can buy up the farmland themselves and then they can legitimately prevent anybody from building anything on it. But verbal sleight-of-hand is no justification for denying others the same rights that they claim for themselves.

If there were some way to add up all the costs imposed by busybodies — on everyone from farmers to people wanting organ transplants — it would probably be greater than the national debt.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Controversial Essays." (Sales help fund JWR.)


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