There is no version of eminent domain that coincides with liberty. On the contrary, the two ideas are antithetical to each other. As a champion of liberty, John Locke stated in his Second Treatise of Civil Government, “For I have truly no Property in that, which another can by right take from me, when he pleases against my Consent.”
In other words, if the government can take your property from you without your consent — even if they are paying you for it — then you don’t really have a right to own private property at all.
The deeper debate about whether the idea of private property still exists at all in a country where property taxes, construction regulations, and other limitations are demanded is one best saved for its own discussion. For now, we’ll stick with the commonly held assumption that private property does exist.
Under that assumption, we can move a few years forward from Locke’s writings and quote the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, a part of what we know as the Bill of Rights, which states that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable … seizures, shall not be violated”.
However, the very next amendment goes on to say that “private property” shall not be taken for “public use” without “just compensation.” Therefore, the idea of eminent domain is Constitutional, even if it still seems antithetical to liberty.
Leaving any argument about personal liberty or the foundations of our country aside, a much older idea from a much higher Authority lays plain the wrongfulness of eminent domain: Thou shalt not steal.
Despite any philosophical reasoning, eminent domain remains the law of the land. The essence of the outrageous but accepted practice is that a government — federal, state or local body — may confiscate land from individuals who legally own it, usually compensating them with at least the current market value of the property, for public needs.
In some cases, it is even more outrageous: The land is given over to private developers for various reasons. The justifications are always that the confiscation is for the greater good of the public. The original landowner has no legal recourse against the actions. That doesn’t sound like the land of the free, does it?
Recent examples from Memphis, St. Louis and North Carolina clearly show that the threat of eminent domain is alive and well in America.
A privately owned mall in a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee, called Raleigh has had issues with crime and gangs over recent years. The city began plans to demolish part of the mall and make it a “town center” last year, including moving a police precinct and a library branch onto the land.
The owners of the mall said that they hadn’t been contacted by the city about the plans, and they refuse to sell part of the property to the city. Now the city has begun eminent domain proceedings to take the property from them. The reason is supposedly because of the crime issues. The question is: If the police can’t keep an area safe without seizing property, should residents of Memphis expect new police precincts to start popping up in every neighborhood area with a crime problem – and land in those areas seized, too?
St. Louis, Missouri, is considering using eminent domain to oust both a private developer and individual homeowners from a swath of property in order to retain the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s facility within city borders. The agency, which provides mapping and satellite support for the military, employs 3,000 people and brings in an estimated $2.4 million in annual earnings taxes, although it is exempt from property taxes because it is operated by the federal government.
The agency is moving because it needs a bigger facility, but the area the city wants used is partly occupied. Although there is a lot of abandoned and demolished space in the area, there are still several long-time homeowners who refuse to give up their land and move. The remaining property is owned by a private developer, who has pledged not to use eminent domain against the remaining residents.
In response, the city is proposing using eminent domain against both the homeowners and the developer. Their tax revenue losses apparently outweigh the property rights of the land owners.
The North Carolina House passed a bill on Feb. 10 that would prevent government from using eminent domain to seize property and then sell it to a private developer. Only “public use” cases would be allowed. The problem: The same measure has passed the house on at least four other occasions in the past, only to be shut down in the state Senate each time.
At least this measure attempts to rein in the expansion of eminent domain’s scope, returning it to the description given in the Fifth Amendment’s language. Someone with a high level of cynicism might even argue that the measure is anti-private sector by cutting all private parties out of the picture and keeping all of the benefits in government hands.
The eminent domain playground is one we would do best to only play in when absolutely necessary, because the path forward is well-known. The destruction and abolition of private property is one of Marx’s 10 planks of Communism espoused in the Communist Manifesto. Turning over seized private property to a business friendly with the government is a staple of fascism. Either way, individual liberty and rights are sacrificed in the name of the “public good.”