Pope Francis Is Wrong. Property Rights Are Human Rights.
A friend of mine, who had spent many years establishing a successful printing business in the Midwest, opened his local newspaper to find a story about a fancy redevelopment project that the city had proposed in his neighborhood. How nice, he thought, until he realized that planning officials were going to put the project on top of his company’s existing building.
He was one of many people I had interviewed for my 2004 book about the abuse of eminent domain—the government’s right to take property upon payment of “just” compensation. The Constitution allows such takings for roads, courthouses and other public uses, but the courts have expanded that definition to allow the government to take private property if it deemed the new use more beneficial than the old one.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo decision gave governments the imprimatur to do so, although Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s dissent still resonates: “The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more.”
I thought of that case, as well as many sad interviews with victimized property owners in various eminent domain and other property rights disputes, after reading Pope Francis’ latest encyclical called Fratelli Tutti, or “Brothers All.” This pope has repeatedly diminished the importance of private property and free markets, but he usually leaves enough wiggle room so his supporters could describe what he meant in “proper context.”
We need no such context this time. “The right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right,” Pope Francis explained. “Yet it often happens that secondary rights displace primary and overriding rights, in practice making them irrelevant.” He added that, “the right to private property is always accompanied by the primary and prior principle of the subordination of all private property to the universal destination of the Earth’s goods.”
There’s plenty to debunk in this 43,000-word missive—from its description of the market system as one based on exploitation, to its call to for stronger international institutions. But I’ll focus on the pope’s distorted view of property and his failure to grasp how this supposed secondary right undergirds those primary values of life, family, and brotherhood. As this nation’s founders recognized,
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