All Commentary
Friday, May 1, 1964

Private Property

The following is an excerpt from a statement by Mr. Scharfenberger, an attorney of Ridgewood, New York, at Hearings on the Brooklyn Bridge Southwest Urban Renewal Project before the New York Planning Commission, February 11, 1964.

I do not for one moment doubt the integrity of the members of this commission. For this reason, I find it difficult to believe that in passing on plans such as these, the commissioners ever fully real­ize the implications of their acts, and especially the impact upon the human beings involved. The men and women, for example, who own or rent the premises in the proj­ect area are industrious, self-sup­porting, and self-respecting. They have committed no crimes. Yet, we have before us a proposal to take property from these citizens to whom it belongs and transfer it to the use and ownership of other citizens to whom it does not be­long. Lest there be any mistake, this is not the taking of property for a road, a courthouse, or a mis­sile site. This is a matter of de­priving some citizens of their private property so that other citi­zens may use and enjoy it.

Please think this over for a mo­ment. No man or group of men, however large, would have the moral right under these circum­stances to seize the property of a single neighbor, with or without compensation. We nevertheless have on the statute books of the State of New York a law which cloaks with legality this admittedly wrongful act. Under color of this law, some men (we could not, of course, permit every man to ac­quire property in this manner) now seek to enlist the coercive mechanism of government to ac­quire property belonging to their neighbors. The victims, who in former years might have called upon the court or a policeman for protection, now find the court and the policeman on the side of the aggressor. We may not be able to measure the damaging effect on respect for law and order; but the damage is done, nevertheless.

The Commission has been told by proponents of the plan that, among other things, the project is a big step forward. I believe it more accurate to call it a sizable step backward. Barbarism has its earmarks, and the acquisition of property through conquest or su­perior force is notably one of them. Civilization, too, has its ear­marks, and the orderly disposition of property through the medium of deeds, leases, wills, and other contractual arrangements is not only an earmark of civilization but an absolute prerequisite. Leases, deeds, wills, and other contracts will all fall under the stroke of the proposed condemnation. With them will fall the personal secur­ity, the hopes, the plans, and—yes—the dreams of the many human beings who have placed their faith in their worth. Here, as always, the failure upon the part of large segments of any given society to understand and respect the rights of ownership can only result in the rise of innumerable pressure groups, all trying to suggest what should be done with other people’s property.




Society can freely leave the care for the best possible employ­ment of capital goods to their owners. In embarking upon definite projects these owners expose their own property, wealth, and social position. They are even more interested in the success of their entrepreneurial activities than is society as a whole. For society as a whole the squandering of capital invested in a defi­nite project means only the loss of a small part of its total funds; for the owner it means much more, for the most part the loss of his total fortune.

LUDWIG VON MISES, Human Action (1949)