Almost two weeks, ago members of a family surnamed Wang (王) were forcibly evicted from their properties along Wenlin Road (文林) in Taipei’s Shilin District (士林) and their houses were torn down by the city to make way for an urban renewal project. The construction company was able to have the Wangs’ private property forcibly torn down despite their objections because a majority of neighboring property owners gave their consent to the project.
This equates to the government condoning the oppression of a few by the majority. Since the Taipei City Government correctly says it was acting within the law, the real issue to examine is the Urban Renewal Act (都市更新條例). For this kind of thing to happen, and for a law of this nature to be on the books despite Taiwan’s robust democracy, is not only regrettable, it borders on inconceivable.
I would like to approach this question from the perspective of property rights and how they work within a system of constitutional government to illuminate the relationship between the guarantees of protection of property and the right to be free from fear.
The 17th-century English philosopher John Locke was a major advocate of freedom of speech, regarded as an important liberal thinker in early 18th-century Britain and known for his position that people are justified in resisting the unwarranted use of power against them. According to Locke, if a government supports usurpers or engages in despotic actions, then it loses its legitimacy to govern and people are free to oppose it.
Locke’s ideas on property rights formed the underpinnings of Western capitalist and socialist systems. For Locke, property rights are a natural right, on par with those of life and liberty, and therefore a right of free peoples, for without property rights it is impossible to be free. According to Locke, political society is founded on the protection of such rights, being at once the goal of government and the reason why individuals choose to participate in society.
It was an idea Locke pushed to its extremes, at one point saying that a soldier who deserts a mission on which death is the most likely outcome can justly be sentenced to death, but the government is not justified in removing his personal property. Locke even placed the foundations of morality on individual property rights, believing that the violation of these rights constitutes an injustice.
Locke wrote that property originally comes about by the exertion of labor upon natural resources and thus property rights are linked with the dignity of the individual and constitute one of an individual’s unalienable rights. When the people agree to form a government, that government is responsible for protecting the property rights of each individual, an idea central to the Lockean concept of a social contract. Consequently, any government that violates this contract opens itself to being overthrown by a popular revolution and the people would be justified when taking part in such a revolution.
All levels of Taiwan’s government are currently democratically elected, having gained the majority support of the electorate. According to Western political theory, the goal of these government departments should be the protection of Taiwanese national’s property. However, the current version of the Urban Renewal Act makes it permissible for the government to oversee the demolition of property if the majority of property owners in a building or area consent to such action, regardless of whether a minority of owners oppose it.