”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
That is, arguably, one of the most famous phrases in the American political lexicon. Written, of course, by that equally famous American deity, Thomas Jefferson. The closing section – “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” – contains the genesis for much that governs our life and culture in America.
Scholars argue whether Jefferson meant to use the term “property” rather than “pursuit of Happiness.” However, they all agree that Jefferson was heavily influenced by John Locke, the 17th-century English political philosopher who coined the phrase “pursuit of happiness,” as was George Mason. Mason might not hold the same place in the First Founders’ pantheon as Jefferson, but linkage of property and liberty in his Virginia Declaration of Rights is less ambiguous.
“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
Locke did, in fact, argue that political society existed for the sake of protecting “property.” Read it in his Second Treatise. It’s convoluted, but he says so.
And so that brings me to the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Huh, you say? Follow me.
Individual property rights are a bedrock of western culture. Our English forebears spent centuries prying those rights from “divine right” monarchs. The Age of Enlightenment philosophers, like Locke, intertwined concepts like liberty, happiness, and property for many reasons, not least of which was the right of self-direction – to not be beholden to a lord, king, or his government. The Founding Fathers enshrined such rights in the Fifth Amendment declaring that one can’t be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Objections to MVP shouldn’t be over viewsheds. Powerlines and roads already cut wide swaths across our beautiful mountainsides. Karst terrain permeate these mountains and groundwater travel through karst is real. We should be concerned about drinking water. However, we already know how to build roads, bridges, and buildings over karst.
The fundamental issue at play over the Mountain Valley Pipeline is the fundamental guarantee of liberty. Call it pursuit of happiness … or call it economic liberty. Any way you look at this issue, it comes down to one concept. The government wants to take a liberty – one’s property – and give it to someone else. The Constitution makes clear that such takings are for “public use.”
Volumes of case law exist teasing out definitions of public use, or as economist say, for a public good. It is not always clear. Generally, a public good is that which is enjoyed or accessible by all. And the public? In the case of MVP, one would think that ought to be linked to the neighbors or related citizens whose property is taken. If the county needs your land for a school, all the county’s citizens benefit.
Therein lies the crux of the pipeline dilemma. Environmental issues aside, who can argue that fracking the Marcellus Shale hasn’t helped the American economy by reducing energy costs? Or for that matter, improved national security by reducing dependence on foreign oil.
But, who locally is benefiting from any eminent domain that appropriates private property? Exporting gas appears to be the end goal of MVP. Opponents are right in their suspicion of the FERC, which appears not to care one whit whether the gas is needed by the public.
And opponents are rightfully disdainful of the Virginia law that delegates to a private pipeline company the right to take private land. As I argued in my June 16, 2006 Roanoke Times column, if the government wants the land for a public need, let the people’s representatives in the General Assembly make the decision. Don’t run and hide by giving that authority to FERC, the State Corporation Commission, or MVP itself.
Personally, I support increased use of natural gas as an interim measure to wean us from coal. But so far, there appears scant evidence that MVP will serve regions from which it wants to seize land. That guarantee of personal liberty called for by Jefferson is built on a due process guarantee, which in turn rests on the Fifth Amendment protection to take property only for public use. Exporting natural gas by a private company doesn’t sound like public use to me.
Hincker is a retired public relations executive in Blacksburg and once worked for a large electric utility.