Protecting private property rights is one of the most fundamental duties of government, at any level, as recognized by societies across the world. In fact, researchers have directly linked a nation's health to property rights. And one would think that the United States would top all charts in the matter.
But in today's world, environmentalists, local bureaucratic busybodies, special interest groups, and angry neighbors constantly fight to end the concept of private property as we know it. Community planning and zoning regulations are sharply increasing throughout the country, and there is only little that a landowner can do to protect his or her property. Permits, licensing, fees, ad valorem taxes, and other local measures easily confuse the border between private and public.
In Miami Beach, a group is particularly involved with this issue. The Miami Design Preservation League, a non-profit group established in 1976 with the mission to "preserve and protect the historical and architectural integrity of the Miami Beach Architectural District," is now actively fighting homeowners to prevent them from renovating their own houses with the help of the City government.
The New York Times is reporting on a couple moving to Star Island, the wealthy and semi-isolated community in the Biscayne Bay area, to settle in a house, costing the Hochsteins a mere $7.6 million. Their new home, however, is ill-equipped, uninhabitable, and already violates several city ordinances.
Dr. Leonard Hochstein would like to demolish the building and erect a new house. But problems came as soon as a demolition request was given to the City of Miami Beach. The MDPL jumped on the case, asking the City to designate the Star Island house a historic building, because it was built in 1925 in the Neo-Classical style.
While the City cannot refuse a demolition plan for a private home, it can easily designate the same house as historic, forbidding demolition. This trick has been often used by previous homeowners wanting to raise home values and wishing to receive appropriate tax breaks. But since the burst of the Real Estate Bubble, dozens of large houses have been demolished throughout Miami-Dade County.
The issue at stake in this conflict is important. On the one side, there is a family that wants to use its own funds to rebuild what could be classified as a ruin, and on the other, a lobbying group wants to use government power to prevent them from doing so.
Where the Miami Design Preservation League haw gone wrong is in the proper equation between society and government. The latter is not supposed to influence the former. Instead, society's role as a culture's representative is best preserved when free people are left to freely communicate and trade with each other. The government has no legitimate role in deciding what is worth preserving or not.
In fact, if we want to really protect property rights (which are the only actual natural rights), we need to abolish the UNESCO on the international level and let private property owners decide of the fate of so called "cultural heritage sites". Chances are, a large part of those sites will remain as such and become profitable museums. Some philanthropists may want to renovate other sites, such as ancient churches or mosques. Other property owners might simply get rid of the site and build something more valuable on the land. Whatever the case is, only private property owners have a legitimate say in the matter. Government should have no power over "historic preservation," just as your neighbor has no power over what happens in your room.
Government power and injustice, such as the one we are witnessing on Star Island, will only decrease once our leaders understand the true notion of property rights.