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So Goes the American Dream

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The American dream once was a reality. A man was free to use his resources any way he saw fit to provide for himself and his family. Whether his resources were personal skills or material in nature, he was free to use them whichever way he wanted, as long as he did not infringe upon the rights of others in the process. As Sam Unuscavage has found out, that dream is now dead.

Mr. Unuscavage owns 23 acres of land that abut Manassas National Battlefield Park in Prince William County, Virginia. He has been in the process of building a park for all-terrain vehicles and off-road motorcycles on his land, reportedly with tracks and jumps.

What is so odd about this, you might ask?

Well, County Attorney Sharon E. Padak has initiated legal proceedings to stop work on the property, claiming that Unuscavage is in violation of local zoning laws. As she put it, “The purpose of this proceeding is to stop what appears to be an apparent violation of a zoning ordinance. An increasing amount of construction … indicates that they just intend to flaunt the law.”

But that suggests the question: Why are there laws prohibiting Unuscavage from using his property as he sees fit?

In a just society, zoning laws would not exist. The only restrictions that would be placed on property owners would be on those activities that violated the rights of other property owners. Read, for example, what the New York Court of Appeals stated in the 1885 case now known as The Tenement-House Cigar Cases:

Liberty, in its broad sense, as understood in this country, means the right not only of freedom from actual servitude, imprisonment, or restraint, but the right of one to use his faculties, in all lawful ways, to live and work where he will, to earn his livelihood in any lawful calling, and to pursue any lawful trade or avocation. All laws, therefore, which impair or trammel these rights, which limit one in his choice of a trade or profession, or confine him to work or to live in a specified locality, or exclude him from his own house, or restrain his otherwise lawful movements, are infringements upon the fundamental rights of liberty, which are under constitutional protection.

Or as a legal brief submitted in the landmark zoning case of Euclid v. City of Ambler stated: “That our cities should be made beautiful and orderly is, of course, in the highest degree desirable, but it is even more important that our people should remain free.”

If only Mr. Unuscavage had lived a hundred years ago, he would be free to build whatever he wanted on his own property. And if someone disapproved, he would be free to make Unascavage an offer to purchase his property. Unfortunately, however, today his fate lies in the hands of tyrannical zoning laws and petty bureaucrats who enforce them, oftentimes in arbitrary ways. So much for the American dream … and economic liberty.

See the complete story about Mr. Unuscavage’s travails.

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    Bart Frazier is program director at The Future of Freedom Foundation. Send him email.