“The American people will never knowingly adopt Socialism. But under the name of ‘liberalism’ they will adopt every fragment of the Socialist program, until one day America will be a Socialist nation, without knowing how it happened.”

Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Imminent Domain

A Man’s Home is the State’s Castle
By Ed Phillips
(originally posted in March 2006)

A truly free society could be described as, among other things, a self-governed citizenry, made up of individuals living their lives, un-intimidated by the State. Fundamental to the individual’s pursuit of happiness in such a society is the concept of ownership. William Rees-Mogg and James Dale Davidson described the sovereign individual in terms of self-ownership: exclusive control over his or her own body and life without the interference of governing powers. In addition to body and life, the idea of self-ownership has broadened in the post-modern world to include labor and property. (Obviously, no man may own another man’s labor or that man is a slave.) Historically, the courts, except for a couple of very narrow areas, have settled the tenets of self-ownership. Body-ownership (specifically with respect to reproduction) remains contentious, but the area I’m interested in is the area of property rights.

Ever since the New London vs Kelo Supreme Court decision was handed down, revenue-hungry townships in dozens of states have seized the opportunity to increase the city’s tax base using the power of imminent domain. The original intent of imminent domain was to provide townships with means to provide for the general welfare of its citizens by taking private land with the intent of public use…but with just and fair compensation. Only the most craven liberal would disagree that public use should be limited to schools, public roads, bridges, fire stations, etc. Thanks to Justice O’Connor, now thankfully in semi-retirement, the “public use” clause had it’s meaning changed to the broader “public purpose”, as she put it.

Prior to Kelo, the most recognizable, alternative meaning of “public use” was to describe toilets at the airport.

Now “public use” can mean anything that represents higher tax revenues for the city…strip malls, condos, office parks or whatever the commercial developer pays the city council member to define as public use. The Constitutional breech occurs not when the city seizes land from the individual, it occurs when that land is transferred to another individual. If your city council members decide that you and your land don’t contribute enough taxes they can unilaterally condemn your land as blighted, kick you out for a “fair market price”, and give it to the commercial developer who’s been bankrolling their re-election campaigns. As it stands, the members of the city council, clearly conflicted by the opposing interests of voters whom they serve and developers who line their pockets, have sole authority to decide what constitutes neighborhood blight. Blight used to be defined as a neighborhood having high numbers of abandoned houses or buildings, property under general disrepair, a high crime rate, and overall lacking in vitality. Now it includes “failure to contribute adequately to the tax base”.

There is nothing in the world wrong with a developer persuading people to sell to him their land as long as it’s done within the confines of the free market system, that is: the developer should have to pay whatever is required to get the people to happily agree to leave, whether he believes the price to be fair or not. If no mutually agreeable price can be reached, tough luck! But rather than find another piece of property, the unscrupulous developer foots the bill for a weekend getaway for the city councilmen and their families and the next thing you know, the neighborhood occupying the land he covets gets labeled as blighted.

Here is where the community falls apart when property rights of land ownership are threatened. If a citizen fears that the State may arbitrarily seize his property for which he possesses lawful documented ownership, where is his incentive to invest himself in his home, land, or neighborhood? Why invest your money and labor into something that is not guaranteed by law to remain yours until you decide to sell it? It’s why rental property is rarely well-maintained…why take pride in something that’s does not belong to you? One need only look at the former Soviet Union, where all property belonged to the State, to understand the value to society of individual ownership. The Soviet State owned the factories, farms, homes and labor of all citizens, and look at the poverty, despair, and misery those poor folks endured for generations. Where was their entrepreneurial spirit to invent, to create, to improve their own life through hard work and dedication? Incentive, motivation, hope and pride disappear when the State, not the individual, is the beneficiary of his inventions and labor.

When the State (read: city council) chips away at the Constitution by diluting and weakening fundamental rights, other individual rights are threatened as well. While the State can curtail the expression of speech and assembly for instance, they cannot be seized per se, because these rights are ethereal and exist only when one exercises them. Property however, is physical, tangible, and permanent. It is owned. You can point to it and state, “That is mine”. If absolute property ownership is not guaranteed, how fleeting might free speech, assembly, and other rights be? The concept of a-man’s-house-is-his-castle is rendered meaningless if you possess your “castle” only at the pleasure of the State. If the State can take it away, simply because it wants it, is it really yours?

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