Extracted from James Howard Kunstler‘s book “The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape“, pages 26-27.
Individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in selfishness. — Alexis de Tocqueville
This is embodied today in the popular phrase, “You can’t tell me what to do with my land.” The “you” here might be a neighbor, the community, or the government. The government’s power to regulate land use was limited under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the constitution. The Fifth states that private property cannot be taken for public use without due process of law and just compensation — the right to public hearings and payment at market value — and the Fourteenth reiterates the due process clause. All subsequent land-use law in America has hinged on whether it might deprive somebody of the economic value of their land.
America’s were the most liberal property laws on Earth when they were established. The chief benefits were rapid development of the wilderness, equal opportunity for those with cash and/or ambition, simplicity of acquisition, and the right to exploitation — such as chopping down all the virgin white pine forests of Michigan (they called it “mining trees”). Our laws gave the individual clear title to make his own decisions, but they also deprived him of the support of community and the presence of sacred places.
The identification of this extreme individualism of property ownership with all that is sacred in American life has been the source of many of the problems I shall describe in the pages that follow. Above all, it tends to degrade the idea of the public realm, and hence of the landscape tissue that ties together the thousands of pieces of private property that make up a town, a suburb, a state. It also degrades the notion that the private individual has a responsibility to this public realm — or, to put it another way, that the public realm is the physical manifestation of the common good.
Tocqueville observed this when he toured America in 1831. “Individualism,” he wrote, “at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in selfishness.”