The fight over the Keystone XL pipeline has sparked a surprising resurgence of interest in property rights on the political Left, leading to a flurry of stories in liberal-leaning media outlets – like NPR, The Nation and Roll Call– about how clearing a path for the pipeline might trample the rights of ranchers, billionaire media moguls and others. It’s an odd, abrupt, obviously-contrived conversion to the pro-property rights camp, by individuals and groups that have long derided property rights as one of those antiquated notions, championed by throwbacks, reactionaries and sagebrush rebels, that shouldn’t be allowed to stand in the way of the grand green agenda.
Clinton era Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, a proud and prototypical environmentalist, once derided property rights advocates as “anarchists at heart” who are out of step with the rest of America. He in this interview singles out property rights champions as the greatest barrier to what he wanted to accomplish at Interior. The view that property rights pose a threat and obstacle to environmental regulation, and can’t be allowed to stand in the way of ”saving the planet,” is common on the environmentalist Left, as we see in this speech by Joseph L. Sax, a former Babbitt aide at Interior and prominent environmental law professor.
I haven’t seen or heard many on the Left (any on the Left, actually) decrying the property rights violations suffered by Mike and Chantell Sackett, whose brutal, bullying treatment at the hands of EPA eco-crats is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Their cause isn’t been championed by the ACLU, or by any other left-wing civil liberties groups, as far as I know, but by the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation. Regulator-friendly environmentalists undoubtedly are rooting for the EPA in this case. They couldn’t give a damn about the Sacketts or their silly old property rights. Such sacrifices simply must be made in the name of protecting ”wetlands.”
Whether they’re protecting endangered species or regulating wetlands or clearing the way for urban renewal, leftists and environmentalists traditionally have treated property rights as a nuisance to be overcome, rather than something to be safeguarded. They view property rights, as they view most things, through a collectivist lens — as something only ostensibly held by individuals, which is subject to veto by the government and by the group when necessary. It’s therefore disorienting to suddenly see liberals, environmentalists and fellow-travelers in the media showing solidarity with property owners impacted by the Keystone pipeline project. It’s just not something one sees when the trampling of property rights comes in the form of an endangered species listing, or a “wetlands” designation, or the creation of another marine sanctuary, or the bulldozing of homes in New London, Connecticut, to make way for an urban renewal project.
This rediscovery of property rights is a transparently-phony attempt to turn a bedrock conservative principle against conservatives supporting Keystone, even though most conservatives understand that eminent domain is a power granted government by the U.S. Constitution (something else liberals read selectively), as long as fair compensation is paid and a clear and compelling public benefit has been demonstrated. Most conservatives would prefer to see eminent domain, when used at all, used cautiously and rarely: It was liberals who cheered loudest when the U.S. Supreme Court, in the infamous Kelo ruling, handed local governments the power to seize and transfer property virtually at will, if the transaction can be shown to boost municipal tax revenues. Most of the outrage that followed that ruling was heard on the Right, among conservatives and libertarians, not on the left, where the collective good (as defined by the collective) matters much more than any one individual’s rights.
It’s nice to see the Keystone controversy stirring a renewed interest in property rights on the political Left. How much better off Americans would be if these folks were sincere and consistent in their sudden passion for protecting property rights.