In Washington, D.C., the home of Laura Elkins and John Robbins was raided, and government officials snooped through their drawers looking for receipts and notebooks. In Frederick, Maryland, shop keeper Eric Kasner was threatened with a fine of $500 per day because he covered up a sign from a previous tenant of the store he was renting. In San Francisco, Richard and Cher Zellman spent more than $200,000 on architects and lawyers—not contractors and construction materials—trying to convert a dilapidated barn into a rental unit.
In each instance, these Americans were doing what millions of individuals do each year. They were simply trying to renovate their property according to their goals and desires. In the process, they ran afoul of their local preservation police.
In cities across America, property owners are forced to comply with historic preservation laws. These laws can dictate virtually every aspect of a property deemed historic, from the type of siding to the style of windows, from the roof design to the color of paint. These draconian measures, according to the website for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, are intended to protect “America’s heritage for future generations.” But what is America’s heritage?
The National Trust for Historic Preservation claims that preservation is about more than “saving old buildings,” and this is true. However, preservationists have sought to “protect” properties that include “a unique location, singular physical characteristic(s) or is a landscape, view or vista representing an established and familiar visual feature of a neighborhood, community or the city.” So, while preservation is about more than saving old buildings, the focus of preservation is on the physical aspects of America’s past—land and buildings—not its true heritage.
There is nothing wrong with preserving old buildings or locations of historical importance. Much can be learned about architecture, culture, history, and those who inhabited such structures. We can learn about the heroic achievements of men like Thomas Jefferson when we visit Monticello. We can be inspired by the achievements of Cornelius Vanderbilt when we visit his mansion in Hyde Park, New York. We can be awestruck at the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright when we tour a building that he designed. But the most important lesson to be learned from these great men, and others like them, does not lie in the physical remnants of their accomplishments. The great lesson is intellectual—the ideas that led to those accomplishments. Those ideas are America’s true heritage.
For example, is it more important that children tour the gardens at Monticello or learn the principles of the Declaration of Independence? America can survive without the former; it cannot survive without the latter. Monticello is not America’s heritage; the inalienable rights of the individual—the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, are.
Fundamentally, preservationists are attacking America’s heritage in the name of protecting it.
America’s heritage is the freedom to live one’s life as one chooses, so long as one abstains from the use of force or fraud against others. It is the freedom to to seek those values that bring one satisfaction and happiness. America’s heritage is the recognition and protection of individual rights, including property rights.
The right to property means the right to earn, use, keep, and dispose of material values, including land, homes, and buildings. It means that the property owner has a right to modify his property, or raze it, as he deems best. “The right to life,” wrote Ayn Rand, “is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible.” In attacking property rights, preservationists are attacking America’s true heritage
If preservationists wish to protect sites that they deem historical, they are free to purchase those properties and do as they choose. Until that time, they must respect the rights of the owner. But this is not what preservationists do.
Preservationists claim that they want to preserve buildings and sites for the purpose of teaching children about our heritage. Preservationists do so by advocating laws that prohibit property owners from demolishing or renovating buildings that are deemed historical. They advocate laws that mandate certain architectural styles and materials, even when those materials are not readily available and are outrageously expensive. And what will children learn from this lesson?
In advocating laws that restrict and control the rights of property owners, preservationists teach children that might makes right. They teach children that, if you cannot convince a property owner to preserve his building, or you cannot raise the money to buy it, you can assemble a gang of like-minded individuals to pass a law. If you cannot persuade someone to your accept position, you can force him to act in accordance with your values, rather than according to his own independent judgment.
“I do not agree with what you have to say,” wrote Voltaire, “but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” We may not always agree with how others choose to use their property, but we must defend their right to use their property as they judge best. It is, quite simply, a matter of preserving America’s heritage.