On the Take

July 2005


The Supreme Court this week handed down a series of decisions on property cases that consistently extend the rights of big business at the expense of the rest of us.

Our government has always had the right to compel you to hand over your property to the state if there was a compelling public interest involved. This is called the right of eminent domain. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about eminent domain:

In United States law, eminent domain is the power of the state to appropriate private property for its own use without the owner's consent. In England and Wales, and other jurisdictions that follow the principles of English law, the related term compulsory purchase is used. Governments most commonly use the power of eminent domain when the acquisition of real property is necessary for the completion of a public project, such as a road, and the owner of the required property is unwilling to negotiate a price for its sale. In many jurisdictions the power of eminent domain is tempered with a right that just compensation be made for the appropriation.

The principle has always been accepted in general by most people and hotly debated on a case-by-case basis. Nobody wants their property seized, even if they are compensated. It is always easier to see the compelling public good in taking somebody else's land. The usual amount of compensation is the taxable value of the property. This may not be it's actual value.

What is new in Kelo v. New London, is that the Supreme Court has decided that your local government can force you to sell your home to the state so that they can give it over to a private developer; for example, someone who wants to erect a strip mall or MacDonalds. Before this, the government could only force you to hand over your property if it was going to be used for some public purpose -- a dam, a road, a park, school, etc.,... The value of your property, when sold to a developer, is often many times the taxable value. If seized by the government, the price you will receive will still be the taxable value. The price that the government charges a developer for your property can range from zero to many times what they paid you.

Governments have often used eminent domain for perfectly legitimate reasons, but history is also full of examples where they used this power for less than legitimate or honest purposes. The government of New York, for example, decided in the late 19th century that there were far too many people of color in the city, so they appropriated the land where most of these people lived, kicked the people out, and knocked down all the buildings. This action resulted in two things: Central Park (where they had lived) and Harlem (where most of them went). I guess the moral of that story is that even when bad people do things for the worst of reasons, sometimes what they do can work out OK.

Provided that I am going to be more or less reasonably compensated for my property, I really don't have an overriding objection to the state coming in and seizing my house to build a public hospital or an airport or a park (or even something less pretty, like a prison). I don't want them to do this, of course, but I'm willing to inconvenience myself for some tangible and demonstrable good.

However, I would not feel the same about being compelled to hand over my property so that a Wal-Mart could be built where I used to live. Big money corporate interests have too much control over government as it is. This Supreme Court decision just gives big corporations a license to steal our homes whenever they want to. All they need to do is cry "jobs" and our local government will hand over the title to our homes, and we will have no legal recourse.

We all know the urban legend about the little home owner who held out and kept the big bad corporation from building a skyscraper on their homestead. That is the American way. This Supreme Court decision is just another method for those with more to steal from those with less, pure and simple.

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