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
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.
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
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.