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Will Bush Side with the Property Thieves?

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Susette Kelo’s story is becoming tragically familiar. She and her neighbors are at risk of losing their homes and businesses because the local government has conspired with a corporation to condemn their land under the power of eminent domain. This is happening in New London, Connecticut, the latest place where legal plunder in America is on display for the whole world to see.

The twist is that the Bush administration — self-proclaimed champion of the “ownership society” — will apparently give its blessing to the land heist. According to the Wall Street Journal, “[The] Administration may file an amicus brief against property owners in an upcoming Supreme Court case concerning eminent domain.” Several property-rights advocacy organizations have publicly asked the administration to side with the landowners but — ominously — there’s been no response.

We’ve heard similar stories before because this is happening all over the United States. As the Institute for Justice explains on its website: “[The] City, the New London Development Corporation (a private development corporation) and Pfizer Corporation had reached an agreement. Pfizer would build a new facility nearby. The NLDC would take all the land in [Susette Kelo’s] neighborhood and transfer it to a private developer who would in turn build an expensive hotel for Pfizer visitors, expensive condos for Pfizer employees, an office building for biotech companies, and other projects to complement the Pfizer facility. The State and the City would contribute millions of dollars. The only thing standing in the way was Susette and her neighbors.”

Governments justify such plunder on the grounds that the higher tax revenues produced by the new uses will benefit the public. Bah! That’s a tissue-thin rationalization for land grabs on behalf of the well-connected, but courts, unfortunately, are buying it.

It’s a sad fact that the U.S. Constitution permits governments to exercise the power of eminent domain. This power is wholly contrary to the spirit of the American founding and a throwback to absolute monarchy, in which the king was seen as the literal owner of the realm. All land was his, and people lived on it at his pleasure. If he wanted a parcel, he had only to take it.

America’s Framers didn’t dump this anti-individualist power, but they did seek to limit it. In the Fifth Amendment they specified that property could be taken for “public use” only and that the owner was due “just compensation.” While that power still conflicts individual rights, at least it was subject to restrictions — if the “takings” clause were read literally — which it is not. When the Framers said “public use,” they meant roads, post offices, and the like. There is no reason to believe they meant giving private land to businesses because higher tax revenues and jobs would be produced.

Kelo and her neighbors in the Fort Trumbull section of New London are not behaving like docile subjects. They sued, but the Connecticut Supreme Court last year ruled 4-3 in favor of the land thieves. So now the case has gone to the U.S. Supreme Court (Kelo v. New London). Joining the property owners as friends of the Court are such champions of private property as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Cato Institute. So far the Bush administration appears to be on the other side.

The U.S. government is good at self-righteously lecturing others about human rights and morality. The Bush administration’s cheerleaders condemn nearly any criticism of the president as a betrayal of America. But with the administration even considering siding with the land thieves, who is the real betrayer of America’s ideals?

The Institute for Justice says, “In just five years, the government filed or threatened condemnation of more than 10,000 properties for private parties.” This is intolerable in an allegedly free society. When will the people demand that it stop?

Update: The Bush administration decided not to enter the case on the side of the city. But neither did it take the homeowners’ side in the Supreme Court.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.