THE WASHINGTON TIMES recently reported on a controversy in Winchester, Virginia, that holds important lessons on freedom, property, and the role of government in the lives of the citizenry.
The issue involves the use of 70 acres of property on which occurred the single largest cavalry charge of the Civil War. The owner of the property, a Virginia corporation, has asked that the property be rezoned to permit industrial development. A group of local residents is opposing the application on the ground that the property should remain in a rural condition so that people can appreciate what it looked like during the Civil War.
An official of the company issued the following statement:
“It’s all been a bunch of hooey. This land was on the market for years. If they wanted to save it, they could have bought it…. People run their mouths, well wait a minute, I didn’t see them put money on the table.”
In his own salty way, the company’s representative has enunciated the principles of a free society and how they apply to the use and preservation of property.
If the people who wish to preserve the Civil War site feel strongly about their beliefs, the free market provides them with a remedy: to put their money where their beliefs are. All they have to do is use their own money to make an offer for the property — an offer that is sufficiently attractive to the owner that he is willing to give up alternative uses of the property in return for the money that is being offered to him.
What if the preservationists don’t have enough money? They can have fundraising drives, asking people to donate money in order to permit the preservationists to purchase the property.
In fact, this is the method that was used several years ago with property that was located near Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Developers were going to use the property for a condominium project. Preservationists were alarmed and outraged. But the law did not permit them to stop the development.
So, what did they do? They had an enormous fundraising drive, asking people to help them preserve the environs of Walden Pond. The drive was successful and they were able to purchase the property from the owner.
What if no one wishes to donate their money to preserve the Winchester Civil War site in a rural condition? Well, that would mean that not very many people place a high value on it. Why should the property remain in a rural condition just because a small number of preservationists want it that way?
In a free society, people are free to use their own property in any way they want, so long as they don’t interfere in some other direct way (e.g., by trespassing or polluting) with someone else’s property. People are also free to make offers to purchase the property of others and, as all of us know, there are thousands of such exchanges taking place every day.
The problem, of course, is that with the American adoption of the welfare state and the regulated society in the 20th century, the principles of freedom and private property that once formed the bedrock of American society were abandoned. Rather than take responsibility for their own beliefs and preferences, people decided instead to run to government officials to fulfill their desires, even if it meant damaging their neighbor through an indirect form of legalized theft.
Consider, for example, the Winchester controversy. The owner of the property obviously believes that an industrial park would result in the highest-valued use for him. That is, when the owner compares the raw land to the proposed industrial park, the anticipated income stream from the industrial park has a higher value for him than gazing on a Civil War battleground.
The preservationists place a higher value on gazing on the battleground. Here is how one preservationist put it: “You want people to come here and stand on this gravel road and look out to the field and say, ‘This is what it would have looked like during the war.’ You alter that scene and you lose that interpretation of that battle.”
So who’s right? Which is the more valuable use of the property? The question is unanswerable because value is subjective. To the owner of the property, the anticipated income stream from the industrial park is more valuable than gazing on the original battlefield. To the preservationists, the gazing is more valuable.
But when the preservationists persuade government officials to prohibit the owner from using the property in the way he deems most valuable, they are effectively using the state to steal the value of the property from the owner — that is, the value that he puts on the property (minus the value, if any, that he does place on gazing on the raw land).
This is one reason why zoning laws are so immoral and destructive. They are the vehicle by which people can avoid responsibility for their beliefs and convictions by using the state to give them what doesn’t rightfully belong to them. Again, if someone wants a property to be used in a certain way, the free market provides him the means to do so — he can put his money where his principles are and make an offer for the property. And if the offer isn’t accepted, he can continue raising it until it is accepted. What if no offer is acceptable to the owner? That’s what freedom is all about — the right to say “no” when someone offers to buy what belongs to you.