More Contempt for Private Property

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has upheld yet another outrageous seizure of private property. From a editorial in the Manchester Union-Leader condemning the ruling:

The state Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the government can keep and destroy more than 500 CDs taken from Michael Cohen, owner of Pitchfork Records in Concord, in 2003 even though the state failed to prove that a single disk was illegal.

Cohen was arrested for attempting to sell bootleg recordings. But the police case collapsed when it turned out that most of the recordings were made legally. Police dropped six of the seven charges, and Cohen went to trial on one charge. He beat it after the judge concluded that the recording was legal.

However, the police refused to return Cohen’s CDs. In the state Supreme Court’s Tuesday ruling, Chief Justice John Broderick, writing for the majority, reasoned so poorly that it appeared as if he’d made up his mind ahead of time.

[…]

The majority concedes that no crime or illegal act was proven, but allows the confiscation anyway by concluding that a crime might have been committed. The majority used words such as “apparently,” “likely” and “would have” to describe the alleged illegal activity.

It should go without saying that speculation by a few judges that a crime might have been committed is a frightening basis for taking someone’s property.

Nearly all of the outrages we write about at Cato – foreiture cases, the Kelo case, no-knock and paramilitary raids, and the smoking bans David Boaz blogged about earlier –are the result of the wholesale disintegration of respect for property rights in America. A country that truly believes in private property wouldn’t allow government agents to seize and keep it without due process. Nor would it allow government agents to break down doors to private homes in the middle of the night to enforce consensual crimes – some 40,000 times per year. Nor would it allow the state to take the property of one citizen and give it to another, for purpses of increasing the tax base. Nor would it allow the state to tell a private business owner whom he can and can’t serve, and what terms, in the interest of controlling the private behavior of his customers.

It isn’t surprising that these violations of property rights spill over into violations of personal and economic freedom. Property rights are the very foundation of our civil liberties. A government that’s quick to restrict what its citizens can do with their private property won’t hesitate to restrict, for example, free speech (see campaign finance “reform”). A government that refuses to recognize a man’s property in his own body (re: drug prohibition) won’t hesitate to those laws by confiscating actual, physical property without due process.

The founders of course understood the fundamental connection between private property and civil liberties. James Madison was particularly eloquent on the point:

This term in its particular application means “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.”

In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.

[…]

In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.

Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.

[…]

If the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property, and the property in rights: they will rival the government that most sacredly guards the former; and by repelling its example in violating the latter, will make themselves a pattern to that and all other governments.

When government has no respect for our rights of property, we oughtn’t be surprised when, likewise, it fails to respect our property in our rights.