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The tyranny of eminent domain

By Larry Salzman and Alex Epstein
web posted February 21, 2005

On February 22nd, the future of property rights in America will be at stake as the Supreme Court begins oral arguments in the case of Kelo v. New London. The central question at issue is: should the government be able to use its power of eminent domain to seize property from one private party and transfer it to another?

The seven property owners on the side of Kelo are the last remaining of more than 70 families whose homes and businesses were targeted for demolition several years ago by the city of New London, Connecticut, to make room for a 90-acre private development. The story of one of the owners, Susette Kelo, is representative. Kelo, a nurse, bought and painstakingly restored a home that initially was so run-down that she needed to cut her way to the front door with a hatchet. After she had achieved her dream home, she was informed in November 2000 by the local government that her home was condemned, and ordered to vacate within 90 days. She and the other owners remain in their homes only by the grace of a court order, which prevents eviction and demolition until their appeals are exhausted.

What justifies this treatment of Kelo and the other owners, who simply want to be free to live on their own property? The seizures and transfers, the government says, are in "the public interest" -- because they will lead to more jobs for New London residents and more tax dollars for the government. This type of justification was given more than 10,000 times between 1998 and 2002, and across 41 states, to use eminent domain (or its threat) to seize private property. The attitude behind these seizures was epitomized by a Lancaster, CA, city attorney explaining why a 99¢ Only store should be condemned to make way for a Costco: "99 Cents produces less than $40,000 [a year] in sales taxes, and Costco was producing more than $400,000. You tell me which was more important?"

To such government officials, the fact that an individual earns a piece of property and wants to use and enjoy it, is of no importance -- all that matters is "the public." But as philosopher Ayn Rand observed, "there is no such entity as 'the public,' since the public is merely a number of individuals . . . . the idea that 'the public interest' supersedes private interests and rights can have but one meaning: that the interests and rights of some individuals take precedence over the interests and rights of others." In the context of the Kelo case, the idea that "the public interest" trumps private property rights simply means that the desires of some individuals for property they did not earn and cannot get from others voluntarily trump the rights of those who did earn it and do not want to sell it. Why are their rights trumped? Because some gang with political pull doesn't happen to like how these individuals are using their property.

This is unjust and un-American. America was founded on the principle of individual rights, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What do these rights mean if an individual is not free to remain in and enjoy the house he chooses to build his life around, simply because others are clamoring for a shopping mall? Just as it would be unjust for the government to shut down the printing presses of a newspaper because its reporting is unpopular, so it is unjust for the government to raze a house that an individual has earned, developed, and loves, no matter how many cry that the land should be put to other use.

If the Supreme Court rules against the property owners in Kelo, then no one's home or business is secure. As Dana Berliner, an attorney for the owners, explains: "If jobs and taxes can be a justification for taking someone's home or business then no property in America is safe. Anyone's home can create more jobs if it is replaced by a business and any small business can generate greater taxes if replaced by a bigger one."

Matthew Dery, another property owner in Kelo warns that "People who've never experienced this sort of treatment at the hands of the government should realize that this could happen to them. You take for granted that, in America, you own your property until you choose to sell it, but that's not the way it is in New London or in Connecticut. If the City [is] allowed to get away with [it] . . . , [t]he knock at your door could be next."

Larry Salzman is an attorney and Alex Epstein is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes the ideas of Ayn Rand -- best-selling author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and originator of the philosophy she called "Objectivism." Copyright © 2005 Ayn Rand® Institute, 2121 Alton Parkway, Suite 250, Irvine, CA 92606. All rights reserved.

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