In Trashing the Economy, Arnold and Gottleib argued that private property rights are sacred. They claimed that the environment movement was “actively destroying private property rights on a massive scale” through preventing people from using their land. Their Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise argued that “the right to liberty is dependent upon the right to own property - together they form the most basic civil rights.”
Whilst Wise Use anecdotes of suffering at the hands of the government always involved the ‘little’ people, those who have most to gain from any further protection of private rights are the large landowners such as the banks, developers, agribusiness and the timber industry. Companies such as the US Sugar company have invested millions of dollars to this end.
While the key players in the property rights movement are upscale conservatives, more likely to own a second home than a second mortgage, they try to portray their interests as compatible with those of rural, low-income property owners.
Property rights advocates cite the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution to support their case. This amendment includes a clause that says that private property taken for public use should not be taken by the government without just compensation. Property rights advocates infer from this that government regulations that restrict their use of their property are ‘takings’. Rather than seeing regulation as an attempt to balance conflicting rights, property rights activists see property rights as absolute and any restriction put in place to protect the public interest as an unjust imposition.
Wise Use groups have fought to have legal definitions of “government takings” expanded to cover regulations which inhibit all sorts of development from mining to filling in wetlands on private land and by the end of 1992 they managed to get such legislation introduced in 27 states. The purpose of this expanded definition is to force the government to compensate a developer for profits they might have made had they been able to develop the land in the way they wanted. The effect of this would be to make the implementation of environmental regulations ridiculously expensive. “A single lost takings case could bankrupt most state regulatory agencies. The takings movement would, if successful, effectively end environmental protection in the United States.”
It seems that the agenda behind the push for takings legislation is to achieve deregulation by making it too expensive to regulate. According to a former US Solicitor General who served in the Reagan Administration:
Attorney General Meese and his young advisors—many drawn from the ranks of the then fledgling Federalist Society and often devotees of the extreme libertarian views of Chicago Law Professor Richard Epstein—had a specific, aggressive, and, it seemed to me, quite radical project in mind: to use the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment as a severe brake upon federal and state regulation of business and property. The grand plan was to make government pay compensation as for a taking of property every time its regulation impinged too severely on a property right... If the government labored under so severe an obligation there would be, to say the least, much less regulation.
Using the “takings” argument, opponents of environmental regulations can claim the moral high ground by arguing that they are not opposed to environmental protection but they are just ensuring that regulation is fairly paid for by the taxpayer rather than the poor, burdened property owner.
The Wise Use groups attempted to get takings legislation into state legislatures because judges tend to consider that in some situations governments have the right to regulate private property. In a 1992 case, Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, the US Supreme court ruled that a beach protection act constituted a taking from one of the local property owners but the presiding judge left the way open for certain types of government regulations that “diminish private property value substantially.” Lucas, a developer, had bought some land for building two houses. He sued for the loss in real estate value of his property when the Coastal Commission changed their management plan so as “to prevent development on sensitive coastal land.”
It was claimed that “almost all of the ‘takings’ bills that were proposed in state legislatures around the county were written by a little right-wing think tank, the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by the usual long-lived cast of conservative businesses and foundations.” The Council aimed to introduce stronger takings laws in various states with its model takings legislation which gives property owners automatic compensation if the value of their land is diminished by 50 per cent or more by government regulations or plans. During 1995 thirteen states passed takings bills and the Private Property Protection Act, part of the Republican’s Contract with America, was passed in the House. If this Act is also passed in the Senate then the cost is estimated at $28 billion. An even more extreme and expensive takings bill was proposed by Republican Senator Bob Dole.