On February 20, 2019, the Supreme Court took an important step to protect property rights. Even more encouraging is the fact that the decision was unanimous.
If readers were unaware of the case of Timbs v. Indiana, that is hardly surprising. That week, news of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal” dominated the headlines to the accompaniment of all of the doomsayers shrieking that the world will end in twelve years.
The two situations are not entirely disconnected. The Timbs decision protected property rights, while massive confiscations of property would be needed to implement the Green goals. Thus, it seems appropriate to examine the whole area of property rights, why they are crucial, and how they are under attack.
The Timbs Case
It is unlikely that readers will meet Tyson Timbs. The Indianapolis Star refers to him as a “former junkie.” Photos of him show a man in his late thirties in a tee-shirt, with glasses, a shaved head, and tattoos on his left arm.
In November of 2013, Mr. Timbs was arrested for selling about $250 worth of heroin. He pled guilty and was sentenced to one year of home detention and five years of probation, which included a court-supervised addiction-treatment program. The sentence also required Mr. Timbs to pay fees and costs totaling $1,203. The only thing about the case that was exceptional was that the police seized Mr. Timbs’s vehicle, a Land Rover SUV.
Such confiscations are not unusual in drug cases. The usual rule is that items purchased with the proceeds of drug transactions are confiscated, under the thoroughly reasonable premise that a criminal should not retain the profits of the crime. The police assumed that the vehicle, which Mr. Timbs had purchased less than a year before for $42,000, had been purchased with money gained through drug sales.
However, Mr. Timbs proved that the vehicle had been purchased by other means. Shortly before the purchase, he had received about $75,000 from his recently deceased father’s life insurance. He used this money to purchase the Land Rover. The lower court agreed that the car should be returned. The State appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled that the confiscation was appropriate.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided that the confiscation violated Mr. Timbs’s rights according to the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Losing a $42,000 automobile, the court found, was an excessive fine.
Property Rights in Scripture and Ancient Law
There are those in the modern world who deny that there are property rights since the Constitution does not explicitly mention them. There is a simple reason for this omission. The framers of the Constitution were so sure of their rights to property that they saw no reason to proclaim a freedom that was obvious to them.
The right to property is affirmed everywhere. It is acknowledged in both the Old and New Testaments. The seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” (Exodus 20:15) recognized that only the owner has the right to possess property. The tenth commandment goes even further, stating that it is forbidden to “covet” the property of another. Our Lord affirms these commandments in Matthew 19:18-19.
While the Church has always commended poverty as a lifestyle, it has never accorded a property right to anyone other than its legal owner. This right was affirmed in the early twentieth century by Pope Saint Pius X in his Motu Proprio “Fin dalla Prima Nostra” (December 18, 1903):
Of the goods of the earth man has not merely the use, like the brute creation, but he has also the right of permanent proprietorship—and not merely of those things which are consumed by use, but also of those which are not consumed by use.
The right of private property, the fruit of labor or industry, or of concession or donation by others, is an incontrovertible natural right; and everybody can dispose reasonably of such property as he thinks fit.
Such an understanding is not limited to the Church. Explicit protections of private property can be found in Roman Law, the Magna Carta, and in English Common Law.
Underlying these laws and traditions is a fundamental principle, that no one can claim to have free will or exercise the responsibility to provide for a family without a right to own property.
Modern Attempts to Deny Property Rights
The right to private property has never been absolute. The ability of the state to levy taxes is a fixture of both scriptures (“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”) and the practice of all known civil governments. The United States, like most countries, allows to the government the ability to exercise “eminent domain” under the principle that the entire community should not be harmed by the refusal of a landowner to sell land to the government for the construction of a legitimate public purpose, such as a road.
That is why the controversial case of Kelo v. City of New London (2005) was controversial. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court expanded the ability to use eminent domain to a government that intended to turn over the land to another private owner and developer. Their theory was that the increased tax revenue to be gained for the city through re-development of the property was a legitimate public purpose.
Far more serious are the claims of the socialists. The infamous Karl Marx stated in The Communist Manifesto, “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” The confiscation of all private property in the name of “the people” has been a hallmark of all communist governments, from Lenin’s Russia to Maduro’s Venezuela.
In Western Europe and America, the preferred method of socialist confiscation is excessive taxation. While scripture, tradition, and law all acknowledge that the state has a legal right to levy taxes, there has never been an absolute consensus about what constitutes excessive.
Using Taxation to Destroy Legitimate Property Rights
Socialists have seized upon this ambiguous situation to raise taxes to levels unimagined before World War II. The process is well known. Simply designate some aspect of human existence as a “right,” and then raise taxes to provide that newfound “right” for all citizens. Currently, the taxation battle in the U.S. is over health care. Some American socialists are already going beyond that and labeling a decent home, a guaranteed income and a university education as yet more expansive rights for which taxes must be levied.
In 1816, U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall famously wrote, “The power to tax is the power to destroy.” In the face of new tax schemes, people need to recognize and fight for the right to private property. Americans must resist these ever-expanding government entitlements, no matter how justified they sound.
There is nothing greedy in defending the right to legally acquired property. Governments come and go. Promises made today can be broken tomorrow. Surrendering property rights through excessive taxation to pay for utopian socialist schemes is a mistake since it involves a God-given right that also belongs to those in the future.