Fanatic supporters of Oregon's Measure 37 like to say that "property rights come from God." That's crazy. Why would God create the earth and living beings then hand over control of land to particular people?
The air we breathe in order to live isn't owned by individuals. The water we drink in order to live isn't owned by individuals. (Oregon law says "all water from all sources of supply belongs to the public.")
So why should the ground that provides the food and other resources we need to live be controlled by individuals?
It shouldn't. Property is part of the commons that is essential for survival of our species. One aspect of the commons, says Peter Barnes, is that it's made up of stuff we inherit:
It is not made up of anything that you or I or some corporation makes. One can present a very good case that if you make or invent something, it should be your private property, at least for a while. This is an entirely appropriate way of rewarding people and businesses for value they create and risks they take. But air and water and ecosystems and DNA and language and legal as well as political institutions are not made by any individual or corporation. They are gifts we inherit, either from nature or from the collective efforts of millions of humans.
Gifts. Grace. God. Words pointing in the direction of two more "Gs": Gratitude and Graciousness. What doesn't come from us and isn't produced by us isn't ours to do with as we please. We should be grateful to be able to use it for however many years of life we've been given.
And gracious enough to pass it on to the next generation in as good or better a condition as we found it. Barnes says:
To bring our discussion back to the problems of impermanence and inequality: it seems to me that if anything is divine, it ought to be those things we inherit together and should pass on, undiminished and more or less equally, to future generations. Permanence should trump impermanence. Broad benefit should trump narrow benefit. The commons should trump capital.
Last night Laurel and I went to an Envision Oregon confab in Salem sponsored by 1000 Friends of Oregon and some other groups. A few Measure 37 supporters found their way into this gathering of mostly progressive land use planning-friendly types.
A few were at Laurel's table. She said they were impossible to reason with. Rigid, unwilling to seek any middle ground. Just like the Republican legislators who refused to vote for the much-needed Measure 37 fix (HB 3540-C) that's been referred for a November vote.
This is the problem with a "divine right" mentality. You start to think that if you own property, you're sitting on the right hand of God, entitled to do with your land whatever pops into your sanctimonious head.
Gravel pit! Landfill! Massive subdivision! If I'm thinking it, it must be good and holy!
Bullshit. This sort of delusional World Revolves Around Me ideation stops public discourse in its tracks.
Jefferson Smith of the Bus Project was the final Envision Oregon speaker. He was great. Witty and right on. Smith told a story about moderating a debate between Ross Day of Oregonians in Action and Bob Stacey of 1000 Friends. He asked them: "Can you imagine making any changes to land use laws that would please your opposition and you also could live with?"
Stacey had lots of ideas. Day, none. "To him," Smith said, "property rights come from God. They're inviolable." Well, he's wrong.
I seriously doubt whether the Ten Commandments came from God. But let's say they did. There's nothing in them about whether it's right or wrong to build a subdivision on prime farmland or in a groundwater limited area. That ethical decision has to come from society, not God.
What we need, said Smith, is to move beyond the politics of Me to the politics of We. The sum of self-interests does not equal the public interest. Amen to that.
He also urged advocates for wise land use planning and the approval of HB 3540-C to recognize the difference between using power and sharing power. "Imagine two sports teams with these different philosophies," he asked. "Which will win?"
I'm all for reaching out to those with differing views and trying to find middle ground. In short, I'm a bleeding heart progressive.
But this doesn't work when the other side is stuck in Divine Right concrete. Oregonians in Action and a good share of its followers will never budge an inch on what they conceive as God-given property rights.
So they need to be overpowered at the ballot box by what Smith called a Coalition of the Benevolently Irrational.
We're all the folks in Oregon who aren't out to make a buck by trashing our state's beautiful landscape. We're willing to give something up for the common good—money, time, whatever it takes to hand on the commons to the next generation.
That sounds pretty darn divine to me.