Sunday, March 25, 2007

Eminent Stupidity

And for today’s compelling topic…Chinese property law!

So on March 16th, the National People’s Congress finally passed a law clearly defining three existing property types, state, collective, and private. The very concept of legally protected private property is a revolutionary one, and it’s a big step in the right direction. But in a lot of respects, it’s nothing more than symbolic.

Y’see, regardless of the fancy legal language that it’s dressed up in, Chinese property is still defined in terms of usufruct — meaning, the government owns all property. What you actually “own” is a land-use right, not, y’know, property itself.

Sounds pretty kooky, right? I direct your attention to Exhibit A:

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

That’s the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and it’s pretty good stuff, no? In fact, it contains the one line in the Bill of Rights that I don’t agree with:

“…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Er, what exactly qualifies as “just compensation” for the forceful deprivation of property? This is a concept known as eminent domain, and the practical upshot of it is that the government can come and take away the house that you worked and sweat for if they decide it would be a nice place for a parking ramp. This isn’t one of those antiquated laws just sitting around on the books that nobody pays attention to anymore, either: it happens all the goddamn time.

It’s kinda like if you’re a teenager, and you have to borrow your dad’s car all the time, and you realize that all the girls think that you’re kind of lame, so you decide to work and save up and buy your own car, but your dad still has the right to take it away from you whenever he wants, so in a sense you never have to grow up but remain a teenager for the rest of your life, and the next thing you know you’re in your forties and you’re still fucking teenage girls, because they’re the only ones naive enough to believe that a guy who actually has his own room and gets to stay up late is still pretty cool. It’s kinda like that.

There's a reason that we regard property rights as sacred -- because your property is the product of your life and liberty, and robbing you of the former robs the latter of its meaning. And concepts such as usufruct -- and eminent domain -- turn the very concept of private property into a joke.

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