Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court in Kelo v. New London handed down a decision that made a lot of people wonder if the court’s majority ever read the Constitution. It essentially said that if municipal officials want to use eminent domain to seize your property because somebody else they might then hand it over to would pay more taxes, that’s just fine.
Never mind the Constitution’s proviso that eminent domain should be used only for "public" purposes such as a road or an army base. To the court majority, "public purpose" apparently means whatever a public official wants to do with your property.
America’s Founders saw government as a protector of property. If the property were yours, it was to be government’s duty to use your tax dollars to make sure nobody stole it. Or if it were stolen, government was to use its police powers to apprehend the criminal, its courts to give him a fair trial, and its jails to teach him an invaluable lesson. The Founders did not envision government at any level having the power to swipe private property just because a different private owner would build a prettier building on it and pay more taxes.
All around the country, local government officials see themselves as having been anointed by who-knows-whom to do just about whatever it takes to entice businesses to locate in their town, county or state. They dish out subsidies and other goodies by the boatload — even as such special favors provide advantages to a newcomer at the expense of the previously existing, taxpaying competition. I often wonder where these officials think they get such an assignment. When I vote for city councilman or county commissioner, I just want the streets to be safe and the sewers to work. I never ask any politician to go find new businesses for me. I reckon they’ll have their hands full just trying to figure out how to pick up the garbage efficiently and not give away the store to the unions or the public employees they hire to do it.
Now in the wake of Kelo, the way is clear for government officials to confiscate property at will. Are Grandma and Grandpa sitting in a house that could be cleared for a mini-mall? Send them a check and an eviction notice! Would a "big box" store pay more taxes than a church? Of course. Bulldoze it!
The whole process is a wide open invitation for corruption. Any company that wants a piece of other people’s property but doesn’t want to endure the messy, protracted process of persuading the owners to sell can instead just lobby local politicians. Tell them it’ll be good for both economic development and the government’s own treasury and heck, you might even get ‘em to confiscate the property for you without so much as a single campaign contribution.
When you lobby to have somebody else’s property taken because it will enrich your bottom line, you've become part of a system that abuses the government's power of eminent domain. No self-respecting company should want to be part of that. That’s why I applauded when BB&T, the nation’s ninth-largest financial holding company, announced recently that it "will not lend to commercial developers that plan to build condominiums, shopping malls and other private projects on land taken from private citizens by government entities using eminent domain." Admirably, this company doesn't want its hands dirtied by participating in such a process.
What’s really needed is a Clean Hands Web site that allows companies to sign up and express their commitment to the principles of private property, just as BB&T has. American consumers would then be able to reward these companies with their business.
The Supreme Court did not see fit to defend the rights of private property owners. Until the Congress or the states fix what the Court messed up, this may be one the people have to resolve on their own.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.