Property: Imagine it anew


Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

— “Imagine,” 1971

I don’t know if John Lennon was self-aware enough to see the irony of a filthy rich superstar longing for a utopia in which everything belongs to everybody, so nobody has to do without anything, the perfect equality within our reach if we just wish for it hard enough.

But before he was murdered in 1980, he was getting there, slowly but surely. He didn’t quite become a full-fledged “minimal government necessary” libertarian who knew that “property rights” and “human rights” are not mutually exclusive, but in fact one and the same. He did grow up a little, though, becoming a family man who understood that freedom begins and ends with what each individual is allowed to do and how much he gets to own of what he has accomplished.

“What I used to be is guilty about money,” he said in one of his last interviews “... Because I thought money was equated with sin. I don’t know. I think I got over it, because I have to either put up or shut up, you know. If you are going to be a monk with nothing, do it. Otherwise, I am going to try to make money, make it. Money itself isn’t the root of all evil.”

Let us all hope the United States Supreme Court is on the same learning curve that John Lennon was.

Government has two roles when it comes to private property: To protect those who own it against the machinations of those who do not, and to be cautious when taking any of it for the “public good.” When the government fails at the latter, it makes it hard to believe it is serious about the former.

Which has so often been the case that there should be an addendum to the national motto of “In God we trust” — give ’em an inch, and they’ll take a mile.

The nadir came with the despicable Kelo vs. City of New London in 2005, in which a 5-4 majority ruled that the Connecticut city taking someone’s property for a public “purpose” was the same thing as taking it for a public “use” constitutionally speaking. But “use” had always meant something for the public good, such as a dam or a road. “Purpose” meant whatever might benefit government coffers.

So, in Kelo, the court authorized taking property from one private owner and giving it to another, one that promised to “economically develop” it and bring in more tax revenue. The court thus legalized thuggery, merging the two roles of government’s property function and allowing gross violation of both of them.

There are some signs, thank goodness, that the court has grown up a little since then.

In two rulings this term — both unanimous — the court has put some brakes on the government’s cavalier treatment of private property. Even if there is scant evidence for that conclusion, perhaps you will allow me to Imagine the best.

In one ruling, the court ruled for a 94-year-old Minnesota woman whose home was taken for failure to pay a $15,000 property tax bill. The county sold the property for $40,000 and decided to keep the extra $25,000. No, the court said; that violated the “just compensation” wording of the Constitution.

The ruling was met with strong approval across the political spectrum, from the very conservative Pacific Legal Foundation to the very liberal ACLU. Nobody likes to see ordinary, defenseless people preyed upon by powerful bullies. It was similar to the reaction in an Indiana case from a few terms ago, when the court ruled that authorities violated the “excessive fines” clause by seizing a $42,000 Land Rover from a criminal who had been sentenced to probation and a $1,200 fine on a drug charge.

In the other ruling, the court ruled in favor of an Idaho couple and against the EPA, which had required them to get a federal permit to build on their property because it had a “wetland,” even though it was not connected to anything outside the property by a “navigable waterway,” a plain requirement of the legislative authorization.

This ruling was not unanimously approved, being decried by a lot of people who seem still confused by the whole public “good,” “use” and “purpose” justification for violating private property rights. They are still living in the 1970s, stuck in the Early John Lennon method of wishing a better world into existence. If the government says “everybody” needs your property, why are you being so selfish?

“The human right of every man to own his own life implies the right to find and transform resources to produce that which sustains and advances life,” said economist Murray N. Rothbard. “That product is a man’s property. That is why property rights are foremost among human right and why any loss of one endangers the others.”

He wrote that in 1959, so let’s forgive him saying “man” instead of “person.” The thought still rings true.

And John Lennon, self-described troublemaking son of a family-deserting merchant seaman, who through talent and hard work became part of one of the most famous songwriting duos in history, could not have said it better.


Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at