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Legal Plunder in Alabama

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Most Americans would take umbrage at the suggestion that they are serfs rather than citizens of the United States. But that just shows how far removed from political reality they are.

How many people would be surprised to learn that the government can take their homes if it decides that some other use of the property — say, a Wal-Mart — will bring in more tax revenue?

”No way!” many people would say. “Not in America.”

Well, as they say in Wayne’s World, “Way!” Governments are doing this almost regularly.

The most recent case to make the news is from Alabaster, Alabama. A development company wants to build an 800,000-square-foot Wal-Mart shopping center there. Colonial Properties Trust has been buying land from homeowners, but it has run into a problem. Seven residents, occupying 12 acres, either don’t like the price offered or don’t want to sell at any price.

In a free country this would leave Colonial Properties with two choices: offer more money or find another location.

Alas, in unfree America there is a third alternative: get the government to take the land under eminent domain. That’s what Colonial Properties requested. And now the city wants to condemn the homes and order the owners out. The government is saying to the them: sell at the developer’s price or the city will take the homes and pay even less.

To accomplish this, Alabaster has declared the homes “negative and blighted” under its 350-acre Urban Renewal and Redevelopment Project. But according to the Birmingham Post-Herald, “It’s not what most people would call a neighborhood threatened by blight.”

That doesn’t matter. The city’s politicians want the land turned over to the developer. Why? Because the shopping center will bring in more revenue than the modest working-class homes do. And what about the property rights of people like Brenda Hall who have lived there so long? To hell with them.

The government doesn’t put it that way, but it amounts to the same thing. The city councilmen talk about sacrifice. One said that in our society “there is give and take.” Yes, the owners give and the nonowners take. That used to be called theft

Another councilman said, “Sometimes the good of the many has to outweigh the greed of the few.” As radio talk-show host Neal Boortz pointed out, Hitler couldn’t have put it better.

Undoubtedly, some people will say that the land is not really being stolen because the government has to pay for it. It is true that under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, government has to pay what is called “just compensation” when it takes private property. But the Fifth Amendment says private property can be taken only for “public use.” Private stores and higher tax revenues are not what the Framers meant. (Taking property even for a government road conflicts with individual rights.)

Moreover, it’s not compensation, but consent, that makes a sale legitimate. In a forced sale there can be no just compensation. Rape is rape even if the perpetrator leaves some money for his victim.

Another evil that arises from this and similar cases is the bad name given to private enterprise. The free market is based on private property. Morally, Brenda Hall has the same right to her home that the largest corporation has to its buildings. When shopping centers are built on land stolen by politicians, it’s not private enterprise — it’s a subtle form of fascism. Such government-business conspiracies against property owners must stop. Right now no one is safe.

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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.