Thursday, June 23, 2005

Who's Really After Your Stuff?

Conservatives like to talk about private property rights. In the extreme conservative lexicon, taxation means "thievery" and environmental regulations infringe on people's rights to do whatever they want with the land they own. Liberals have tended to be a little more flexible about the issue, often weighing the public good above inidividual property owner desires. This is an old, old fight.

Today, the Supreme Court handed down a property rights decision that should bother consvertives and liberals alike. The court ruled that the city of New London, CT can annex the property of private citizens who don't want to sell their homes and land in order for an office building to be erected. Emminent Domain seizures, where a government forces citizens to sell property in order for some public good (a highway, a school, a park) are rare. This decision defines office buildings, shopping malls and the like as "public good" under the reasoning that economic development is in the public interest.

Putting aside any outrage or sympathy I feel on behalf of those forced to move, I have to agree that economic development is in the public interest of most communities. It would be churlish to suggest otherwise.

That said, I disagree with the court because I think that the economy shouldn't rule policy -- there should be give and take. Sometimes, you make a decision in deference to economic forces, sometimes you have to expect economic forces to defer to other values like individual rights, freedom, or aesthetics.

Besides, we don't live in a perfect world. Say I'm a developer and I want to go to your town and build an office building. I need approvals from zoning commissions and maybe from the city council. Of course, I'm going to argue that my idea is in the best interests of all of humanity. To further that argument, I'm going to contribute to campaigns, take people golfing, take people out on the town, give some cash to a local charity and let your council representative take the credit for bringing a new friend to your community. It's simply not going to be as simple as a third party economic assessment of my plans, and we all know it.

The irony is that conservatives worry about the government stealing from private citizens. But, who does the government serve? Usually other, more powerful, private citizens. Is the city of New London kicking people out of their homes? Yes. But they're doing it in deference to a corporate interest. I think it's time that people realized that, in many cases, the threat to individual freedom doesn't come from the government, it comes from other, more powerful, individuals.

But why do we have a government in the first place? It's supposed to keep the strong from trampling the weak. That's what's wrong with the Supreme Court's decision -- it exists in some sort of abstract, perfect world, while real life is far mroe complicated.


At 5:21 PM , Blogger Ideasculptor said...

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At 5:23 PM , Blogger Ideasculptor said...

You mention the "public good," but the 5th amendment is quite specific when it says "public use," not "public good." To me, they are very different things. It is one thing to take private property for public use, such as a road, school, or other necessity. It is another thing to take it because it is merely convenient or 'good' for the people (who defines 'good' anyway? That strikes me as a pretty subjective standard.). Eminent Domain needs to exist, but it shouldn't be about societal convenience, it should be about societal necessity. In the case in question, the property will be seized for private use, which someone has just arbitrarily defined to be 'good.' But I just don't see where the constitution says that 'public good' equates to 'public use.'

This is a truly bizarre decision, especially since it is a rare decision where the conservatives on the court took the capital 'C' Conservative position and the 'liberals' took the bizarre position which is both pro-business and wierdly socialist in its attitude to private property. I don't get it. Who bought off the supreme court?

At 7:13 PM , Blogger Mike M. said...

Good point, as always, Sam.

However, I wonder if the semantics aren't helpful. Economic development can be rather easily defined as a "use" of public space, rather than a "good."

Still, I think we agree that what we have here, in the end, is the court siding with business interests over private interests. This is key, I think, and should be noted. Is the point of America supposed to be that individuals can live their own lives? Or is it that we should do business? I think the court just decided that argument in favor of "business first" without being explicit.

At 8:11 PM , Blogger hooey said...

I support this progressive decision. I feel the rights of a few are trumped by the rihgts of many. What rights? Jobs, places to shop, and tax rateables. I felt conservatives would have got behind this landmark decision because many redevelopment projects contribute to the tax bass, thereby lowering taxes. I thought conservatives were for lower taxes. I feel the right has shown it's true colours.

At 3:46 PM , Blogger tifanie said...

Howie, you misused the word, "it's". In this case, it is not possessive. Did you fall asleep at Princeton alot?


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