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Prioritizing Property Rights

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In America, property rights are king. The right to property is part of the national mythology. And I get that. But I am constantly curious as to how competing rights to property play out. In other words, like all rights, if conceived broadly enough anyway, they inevitably conflict with others who think their own, quite similar, rights take precedence. While we are most famously seeing this right now in the discriminatory bills passed by Indiana and soon probably by other states, this also plays out in the realm of property rights. If one wants to develop their property and it affects other people’s property, almost inevitably in the United States, the wealthy win. This goes back to the early 19th century, when upstream and downstream property owners were suing early corporations over the damage their dams, logging runs, and other industrial water uses were causing the property of farmers, fishers, and other water users. The courts consistently found for the capitalists. And while the rise of the government regulatory state eventually created the principle of the collective rights of Americans having some occasional precedence over private property rights (such as in the national forests), when multiple property owners battle, little has changed.

I thought of this when reading this story about fracking in Nebraska
. A drilling company wants to truck polluted water to land near some ranches. The likelihood of this water polluting the water supplies of nearby ranches is high. That led to a farmer challenging the board members of the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation committee to drink the water. Of course they wouldn’t. Why should the rights of a drilling company negatively affect the property rights of entire communities.

I ask the same question about outsourcing. Why should the property rights of a corporation be allowed to destroy the property values of thousands of people by moving to a new location? What about their property rights? Allow me to quote from the manuscript version of Out of Sight on this issue:

In the mid-twentieth century, GE was the prime economic engine for its hometown of Schenectady, New York and the surrounding region. It made Schenectady a home of good jobs for researchers and scientists, mechanics and assembly line workers. GE located its electrical capacitor plant in Fort Edward, New York, about forty miles northeast of Schenectady. For decades, the plant used polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) to make the capacitors safe and reliable. Unfortunately, PCBs also cause cancer, fetal disorders, and cognitive dysfunctions. Industry knew of the effects of PCB exposure after workers in a New York factory died of liver failure after exposure in 1936, but for decades GE dumped the PCBs into the Hudson River watershed. By the time the federal government banned PCBs in 1976, 1.3 million pounds polluted the Hudson River and 7 million pounds poisoned local landfills. PCBs entered the bodies of fish and birds, and then the bodies of the people who defied the ban on Hudson River fishing to feed their families. In 1983, the EPA declared 200 miles of the Hudson a Superfund site. Workers in Fort Edward and people throughout the Hudson watershed had to live with the consequences of PCB exposure. They also needed jobs in a place with limited potential for new economic development thanks to GE poisoning the land.

In 2013, GE announced it was moving capacitor production to the now ironically named Clearwater, Florida, where it can enjoy a non-union workforce, a favorable regulatory climate, and, because of this, higher profits. The United Electrical Workers (UE) represents the Fort Edward workers. UE political director Chris Townsend said, “It shouldn’t be easy to close a plant. The General Electric corporation has been shown every imaginable consideration. Our members have worked with the company to keep this plant profitable. Now the company decides to walk off, leave hundreds of people stranded with no jobs, no income.” You might argue, “This is America and corporations have property rights to move their operations wherever someone agrees to host them.” But what happens to the property values of Fort Edward homeowners, left with no hope for jobs and a polluted landscape? What happened to the homeowners of Detroit, Cleveland, and Scranton as jobs disappeared? Why do we allow corporate property rights to trump the rights of everyday citizens to jobs, good schools, safe neighborhoods, and the investment in their homes and communities? Why should a corporation be able move anywhere it wants for any reason it chooses? We do not really ask these questions but we should. We might bemoan corporate mobility but we rarely challenge the fundamental right of corporations to move.

Why do we never use the idea of property rights to protect the collective property of individual property owners against the wealthy? It’s not even a question we ask ourselves. But we should, whether against polluters lowering the property values of their workers through their actions or against the same corporations decided to decimate a community by moving all the jobs away.

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