Modern Eminent Domain

by | Aug 12, 2001

This use of eminent domain flatly contradicts the fundamental principles of this country, which declare that all men are created equal, that every man is an end in himself endowed with inalienable rights, including property rights, that each man be accorded equal protection by the law and that no man be deprived of due process under the law.

Amid cheers of a majority of voters, the sanction of its mayor and city council, and the financial backing of leading local businessmen, the city of San Diego is perpetrating a terrible injustice. The victims are a small group of innocent individuals facing the likelihood of being stripped of their homes and businesses.

This violation is being enacted for the alleged “public use” of developing a downtown ballpark. Recently, the San Diego City Council voted to move ahead with the project and officials are now ordering people from their homes. The land taken by the city will go to some of San Diego’s most politically connected, who will build the ballpark and a 26-block “entertainment center” where the residents’ homes and livelihoods now stand.

San Diego joins a growing trend among U.S. cities using the power of eminent domain—the government’s ability to lawfully seize property—to tyrannize politically weak individuals. In a recent well-publicized case, for instance, Donald Trump conspired with Atlantic City officials to level a block of family businesses so that he would have more room next to his casino for a parking lot. Just as the ballpark developers did in San Diego, Trump turned to unscrupulous city officials to gain by force what he could not get by private negotiation. Fortunately, these victims were aided by the charity of aggressive lawyers who blocked Trump’s gambit.

Although always a violation of property rights, traditionally the eminent domain power was limited to and employed for strictly public purposes such as roads, utilities, and military use. Courts did not allow government to take, for example, a corner mom-and -pop gas station solely to turn it over to McDonalds for redevelopment. In 1983, when the state of Hawaii took vast tracts of land from a small minority of private owners and resold it to the “general public,” the U.S. Court of Appeals declared it “a naked attempt” to take private property and correctly identified it as “majoritarian tyranny.” Unfortunately, in 1984, the Supreme
Court disagreed.

Ever since, emboldened mayors and city councilmen have seized property in greater quantity for increasingly specious purposes. In Texas, the homes of 117 residents were bulldozed to make room for a shopping mall. In Detroit, hundreds of residents and businesspeople lost their homes and businesses so that GM could build a new plant. And elsewhere in San Diego an auto repair shop, hardware store, and carpet business were recently forced to close so that a Price Club could claim their land.

Compounding the injustice, many victims are financially ruined. Although the cities are charged under the Constitution with providing “just compensation” to eminent domain victims, they are not required to offer fair-market value but a bureaucratically determined “fair and reasonable” one. Knowing that they will rarely be second-guessed by the court’s new pacifist approach, the cities often make callous, shamefully low offers—sometimes less than 10 percent of appraised value, and the victims’ lawyers, where the victims can afford lawyers, can only counsel their clients to take whatever they can get.

What prevents overwhelming public outrage at such injustices? A broad acceptance of the morality of altruism–the view that an individual’s moral worth derives solely from service to others. Its corollary, applicable in this case, is that any individual sacrifice or injustice wreaked by the city is inconsequential in comparison to the alleged benefit of a “public use.”

Ayn Rand was right when she observed, “since 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.”

This is exactly what is happening in San Diego and other American cities. The local government is forcing a politically weak minority of citizens to sacrifice its rights to a well-connected few, in the alleged favor of the majority.

This use of eminent domain flatly contradicts the fundamental principles of this country, which declare that all men are created equal, that every man is an end in himself endowed with inalienable rights, including property rights, that each man be accorded equal protection by the law and that no man be deprived of due process under the law.

We must choose one set of principles or the other—the American tradition, or arbitrary rule by official whim. They cannot coexist. The present use of eminent domain is a menace that must be challenged at every step and, for the sake of all our freedom, should be repealed entirely. It may be too late for too many beleaguered San Diegans, but your property could be next.

This article was written for The Ayn Rand Institute’s op-ed program. It appeared in numerous papers, including The Sacramento Bee and The Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Larry Salzman is a  writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, CA. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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